Stepparenting and Discipline: Foundation for Effective Communication; Part 3 of 3
In this final part of the series, our exploration of stepparent / child relationships offers more insight into how nonbiological relationships can thrive within the context of a blended family. As we have determined, stepchildren have unique and distinct needs and requirements in their quest to bond with a newly acquired family member.
Of course there are advantages as well as disadvantages in all associations: Children who visit their non-custodial parents on a part-time basis are frequently over-indulged. But the tension and resentment that this causes the stepparent is only aggravated when a stepchild’s poor behavior either goes unnoticed or unreproved by the doting biological parent.
Most behavior problems are a result of conduct that went uncorrected at the beginning of a step-relationship; orderliness must be established early. Bitterness is compounded when a stepparent is discouraged from speaking out when unacceptable conduct is not addressed. But oftentimes a natural parent who is only afforded a few days a month to see his or her offspring refuse to deal with discipline issues — because they only see their children for such a short time, they refuse to assume the role of disciplinarian.
The natural parent who refuses to administer correction to an unruly child is not acting in the child’s best interest. A stepparent can be more objective in such cases and should assume the disciplinarian role that the natural parent is rejecting. The natural parent may dispute the critical observations and dismiss them as prejudice against the stepchild. They often feel defensive and protective of their children against faultfinding, particularly from the stepparent. This can potentially cause division between the parent and stepparent and can erode the marital relationship.
The widespread opinion, especially among stepmothers, is that most stepchildren are spoiled. Certain family psychologists agree by noting that the guilt associated with divorce affects the noncustodial parent’s ability to be objective about their child’s behavior.
When a couple joins in marriage, they recite vows that obligate them to commit to each other for better or worse. The agreement to assume the role of stepparent takes place at the altar; however, the time to count the cost of the huge undertaking of co-parenting is before the wedding day. Stepparents who are unwilling to honor their verbal contract merely speak barren words during the ceremony. To make a covenant in a marriage with someone who has biological children requires the incoming new mate to assume roles and responsibilities pertaining to those children. These include the extension of love, attention, time and loving discipline.
Experts concur that there are certain realities that occur in step-territory and the sooner they’re accepted the better for all involved:
- Stepfamilies function according to different paradigms, dynamics and behaviors.
- Don’t expect “instant love.” The key is mutual respect.
- Stepparenting can be hazardous to a couples’ sex life.
- Everyone wants attention and time — generally at the same moment.
- Blame the step situation and not the people involved.
- There are no ex-parents.
- Unrealistic expectations can cause difficult disappointments.
- It’s important to establish firm rules for discipline and visitation.
- Everyone in step has a certain degree of guilt with which to deal.
- Overindulging the children is a temptation to be avoided.
Coming to grip with these unchangeable truths helps the stepfamily deal with the adjustments needed to survive together successfully. Raising children and administering consistent and loving discipline is one of the most frustrating and challenging roles as a parent, whether biological or by step. As one mother remarked, it can sometimes take up to three adults in a child’s life to simply teach him or her how to hold a fork properly.
Parents oftentimes have vastly different ideas about discipline from one another. Those who work with remarried families agree that constant and open communication between parents about child discipline issues is essential. Children need to know what is expected of them so they can achieve a sense of security. Parents who operate chaotically or engage in ongoing battles over child rearing issues reflect an element of turmoil and anxiety to their children. Unity on the part of the parent and stepparent provides a sense of refuge, predictability and stability.
According to psychologist Janice Nadler, open communication means more than simply how to handle specific situations. In stepfamilies, it means that there must be no covert messages by the stepparent that the non-parent is to remain uninvolved in the actual raising of the children. Child counselor Thelma Kaplan recognizes that there is no universal style of discipline and she emphatically encourages blended families to be consistent in their approach. She advises the biological as well as the stepparent to decide together as to whether their household is to function as authoritarian or democratic. Both theories should be examined by each stepfamily and a plan should be formulated and consistently executed.
My conclusion on the issue of whether or not a stepparent should be passive or active in the discipline of a stepchild is borne out of personal experience. As a single mother of three teenager daughters, I married a man who had an eight-year-old young girl of his own. My children live with us and he is the non-custodial parent of his child who visits one weekend a month. Our efforts to mesh the two families have been a challenge to say the least. From the get-go each member dealt with varying degrees of territorialism. The issue of favoritism persistently raises its ugly head. When disciplinary action is required, the dynamics are complicated and the roles are questioned. Yet, our family has learned that a stepparent must assume the role of the active disciplinarian in order to help cultivate an effective blended family.
We have endured the negative effects of rampant self-will that is encouraged by some who propose a passive approach to stepparenting. We have dealt with rebellion and at times excused negative behavior because of the overwhelming guilt incurred by the trauma of divorce. We have come to the conclusion that the passive approach is ineffective and does not serve the best interest of step or biological children.
The passive view of stepparent participation renders a half-hearted involvement between the stepchild and the stepparent. It breeds defiance on the part of the child, who is assured that he or she will not be held accountable by the stepparent or have to suffer consequences for poor choices or behavior; a divisive tone is established as one parent assumes corrective responsibility for one set of children and the other parent for the others. Instead of promoting unity, this approach encourages detachment and isolation. Without equal participation between parent and stepparent, adult authority is diluted and the children suffer from a lack of consistency and unity.
We are in an ongoing effort to design a system of discipline that serves our children’s best interests and long-term gain. The research uncovered in this study has convinced my husband and I that a full commitment to each other and one another’s offspring calls us to love, nurture and discipline together, no matter how challenging the task before us appears to be.