Parents: Don’t Be the Gorilla (Even When Your Family Feels Like a Zoo)


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So my wife was scolding her step-daughter, who is my biological daughter.

Watching my daughter’s face fall into a blank stare, followed by confusion, followed by dejection, my own feelings escalated. How dare she talk to my daughter that way! Besides, she was just being a kid. 

Blended families are tough. Beyond the typical difficulties of marriage, you’ve got two worlds colliding: that of children who have been raised under very different expectations than what the new, blended family provides.

What does it take to function in a blended family?

I’ve been asking myself this question for a while now and have come up with the answer: Maturity.

I’m not suggesting that I’m a perfect example of it but maturity is the key nonetheless. I’ve been studying and teaching Neuro-Linguistic Programming (communication skills) for many years and I can tell you this: Personal maturity is different than knowing how to communicate well. Maturity is that x-factor that provides perspective, patience and a willingness to consider a point of view beyond your own.

With that, here are three reminders (to myself) of how to be an adult in a blended family.

1. Step back.  Boy, is it easy to get caught up in drama. Your kids, my kids…what’s fair and not fair? And all over silly things like who gets to shower first. Someone needs to stay calm. By stepping back and look at the big picture, we might just do that. How important is this drama, really?

2. Take the other’s point of view. Your partner’s in particular.

When my wife scolded my daughter, it took a real effort to see her point of view. But when I did, it was a relief. I realized my daughter was being treated no differently than the other children. My wife was being fair. Wow! So much for my ego. Taking another’s point of view is a popular technique from Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

3. Preserve your partnership. Biological loyalty is hard-wired. It’s in each and every parent (well, many parents) to protect their children and even new spouses are not exempt. Here’s a scary mammal fact for you: Do you know what alpha male silverback gorillas do when they take over a competitor’s harem?  They kill the baby gorillas. This is awful, I know. Alpha-male gorillas only want to pass on their DNA and have no mercy any others. Mammals, am I right?!

Humans are mammals, too—and thank heavens we’re not as solely motivated by evolution as silverback gorillas. We can make agreements to raise other’s children. Still, it’s extremely difficult to see another person’s child in the same way we see our own. The problem is, favoring your own children over your spouses causes unending marital strife.

So, evolutionary urges to favor your own children and disparage others aside, you’ve got your romantic partnership to consider, as well as your own higher sense of compassion and fairness. Going back to point #1, step back! Consider your long-term romantic partnership and, to point #2, take the child’s point of view as well. In this case, compassion rules.

The moral of this story?

Don’t be a gorilla.

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