Q: The woman I’ve been dating — a single mom with two boys — and I have decided to marry. My only reservation, and I’ve told her this, concerns the stepfather thing. I’m not clear, and neither is she, on the proper role and responsibilities of stepfathers, especially with discipline. She reads your column religiously and told me to ask for advice.
A: I have extensive experience in this area, given that I grew up with a stepfather. Before my mother remarried when I was almost 7, she gave me some invaluable information and advice. She told me that when I was in my stepfather’s home, he was “the father.” She said that I was to respect and obey him as well as I respected and obeyed her, which was a high standard. My mother’s 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, when one or both parties are bringing children in tow, is because my mother’s attitude is no longer the norm. In fact, even such 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 bad advice. Parenting conflicts will be nearly inevitable.
The problem actually begins before the second marriage. Following divorce, a single mom tends to center her life on her kids. (I realize that there are many variations on custody and visitation these days, so I am focusing on the most common variation — 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, dysfunctional precedents are being set.
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After the marriage, the precedents in question lead to predictable difficulties: The children complain to their mother when step-dad tries to discipline; mom reinforces their resentment by adopting a territorial, protective attitude toward them; the stepfather begins to feel that he is a second-class citizen in his own home.
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.”
And to those moms who don’t trust their new husbands to discipline properly, my question becomes: “Then why did you marry him in the first place?”
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 no matter who is administering the discipline. 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.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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