Reader Question: The woman I’ve been dating—a single mom with two young boys—and I have decided to get married. My only reservation, and I’ve told her this, concerns the stepfather thing. I’m not clear and really neither is she on the proper role and responsibilities of stepfathers, especially in the area of discipline. She reads your column religiously and told me to ask you for advice. It would be most appreciated.
I happen to have extensive experience in this area, given that I grew up with a stepfather in what is today known as a step-family. Before my mother remarried when I was almost seven, she gave me some invaluable information and very good advice. The invaluable information consisted of telling me that when I was in my stepfather’s home, he was “the father.” Her very good advice was that I was to respect and obey him as well as I respected and obeyed her, which was a high standard. My mother’s little talk let me know that her primary allegiance was no longer to me; it was to her new partner, as it should have been.
The reason that the risk of divorce is higher in a second marriage where one or both parties is bringing children in tow is because my mother’s attitude is no longer the norm. In fact, even such highly respected people as Dr. Phil advise that in step-families, a parent should only discipline his or her biological children. Mincing no words (my habit), that is extremely bad advice. It sets up a situation where parenting conflicts are nearly inevitable.
The problem actually begins before the second marriage. Following divorce, a single mom tends to center her life around her kids. (I realize, by the way, that there are many variations on custody and visitation, so I have decided to keep things simple and talk in terms of the most common—the mother has primary custody.) Her eventual second husband, no fool, sees what is happening and realizes he must successfully “court” both her and her kids. He tries his best to be a fun guy. In the process of all this, and on both sides of this coin, very dysfunctional precedents are being set.
After the marriage, the precedents in question lead to a set of predictable difficulties: the children complain to their mother when stepdad tries to discipline; mom reinforces their resentment by adopting a territorial, protective attitude toward them; and the stepfather begins to feel that he is a “second-class citizen” in his own home.
I am firm in my conviction that from the get-go, the step-parent, whether male or female, must have complete disciplinary discretion where step-children are concerned. In other words, there is no special set of rules or restrictions that apply uniquely to step-parents. When the parties involved believe that “step” is the operative word, as opposed to “parent” or “family,” that’s when the problems begin. As someone else has put it, “When you think of yourself as a step, it becomes inevitable that you will be stepped on.”
By the way, most mental health professionals claim that kids resent it when they are disciplined by step-parents. My retort is, “So what?” Kids usually resent being disciplined, period, no matter who the discipliner is. Besides, kids do not know what they need; they only know what they want, and they usually want what is not in their best interests. Which is why they need parents for at least 18 years.