Parenting Advice for Step-Parents: Handling the Gray Areas without “The Manual”


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Whether the kids are his, hers or ours, when two parents make a household, communication is the key! My mother used to tell me she never received a manual from the hospital, and step-parenting is no different. My husband was brave enough to become a step-parent to four children before we had two of our own! Becoming a step-parent is not for the faint of heart; it is not always easy, but consistency and open conversations have helped along the way. Here is some general advice for families with a step.

Be on the same page – No matter who the biological parents are in a family, the acting parents (all) need to approach parenting, particularly any difficult behavior, in a similar fashion. Imagine one parent allowing the kids to climb on the table while the other doesn’t. Although an elementary example, you can imagine the chaos which ensues if there is not some agreement about acceptable behavior expectations.There needs to be an explicit conversation between adults including some what if scenarios.

You are a respected adult – When a person lives with children and is put in the role of protector and caretaker of those kids, he or she becomes a respected adult in the household. The bio-parent should make that clear from the start. I teach my kids to listen to and respect adults, particularly within our household, as we have lived with my dad and his! This follows for step-parents, grandparents, extended-adult-relatives, live-in babysitters, and even adults in the community and schools. While the role of children has changed over time (incredibly so in America), they still need to respect and obey adults around them. A good step-parent should speak and act respectfully, as should all parents and kids!

What’s good for the goose… You know the rest. No matter who came into the relationship with the kids, fair is fair. What’s good for his kids should be good for hers and theirs, age appropriate of course. When the other bio-parent is still involved and as the kids grow, schedules and parent preferences can complicate things. Generally speaking, step-parents should be careful not to favor one child over another no matter who belongs to whom. Kids can sense this (they’re not stupid) and bad feelings can fester like rotten bologna under my bed when I was four. Just as the step-parent is not there to erase and replace the bio-parent, kids are kids and should be treated fairly.

Don’t be afraid to discipline, within boundaries – Forget the old wait-till-your-father-gets-home line! When children misbehave, especially little ones, the discipline should be sooner than later. Obviously, physical punishment should not be in the realm of a step-parent (and some say any parent), but an age-appropriate punishment should be given by step-parent, just as any babysitter or teacher. What’s appropriate? Up to age 8 or 10, a time-out to equal the age may work, or just remove the object of contention (if kids are fighting over electronics or tv, take it away or turn it off). Sending a child to his or her room or revoking a privilege like going to a park or a friends house can be effective. Physical intervention should only be necessary when safety is a concern. Step-parents who have firm expectations and simple but quick discipline will likely experience little trouble from the kids.

Relax, have fun! Being a step-parent can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It can also be  lousy and stressful. Parenting does not come with a manual, but I can tell you from experience with my own kids and their step-dad, childhood goes by quickly. Time with the kids, as kids, is fleeting. Enjoy it when you can, between sports practices and chores. Be a good listener to your step-kids. Don’t judge, but guide. Be the loving and supportive parent their mom or dad knew you could be when you got married!

I'm mom to six great kids, educator and writer. I earned my BS at RI College and MEd at Providence College. My hats: special educator, middle level ELA teacher, tutor and writer of local blog for families and Au Pairs. Baking, gardening, reading and relaxing on the porch are hobbies.

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