Q: The woman I’ve been dating has accepted my proposal to get married. She’s the mother of two boys, and my only reservation about this marriage—and I’ve told her this—concerns the stepfather thing. I’m not clear, and neither is she, on the proper role of stepfathers, especially regarding discipline. She reads your column religiously and told me to ask you for advice. It would be most appreciated.
A: I happen to have extensive experience in this area, given that I grew up with a stepfather. Before my mother remarried, 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 husband, as it should have been.
The reason why the risk of divorce is higher in a second marriage where one or both parties are 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 stepfamilies, a parent should discipline only his or her biological children. 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 on her kids. 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 the stepdad tries to discipline; the mom reinforces their resentment by adopting a territorial, protective attitude toward them; and the stepfather begins to feel that he’s a “second-class citizen” in his own home.
I’m firm in my conviction that from the get-go, the stepparent, whether male or female, must have complete disciplinary discretion where stepchildren are concerned. In other words, there is no special set of rules or restrictions that apply uniquely to stepparents. 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—and I’ve met more than a few—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’re disciplined by stepparents. My retort is, “So what?” Kids usually resent being disciplined, period, no matter who the discipliner is. Besides, kids don’t know what they need; they only know what they want, and they usually want what is not in their best interest, which is why they need parents for at least 18 years.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.