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The stepparent waltz: Affirming authority without stepping on toes

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The Brady Bunch brought us a portrait of the perfect blended family. Both Mike and Carol Brady seemed able to dispense advice and discipline. Their authority over all the kids seemed so firm that at times one forgot which kids belonged to which parent.

Before the birth of the Brady Bunch show we had stories such as Cinderella to reference in regards to the role of stepparents. We all know the story about how the evil step-mother ordered the fragile beauty around while she played favorites to her own daughters. Although Cinderella won out in the end, the messages regarding the role of stepparents was clear, they are forces with whom to be reckoned.

According to US census figures, around 40%-50% of all first time marriages end in divorce. The rate of remarriage is roughly the same. Blended family life has quickly become a norm rather than an exception.

How do stepparents strike the balance between affirming their authority and not overstepping their bounds? The stepparent waltz can be both difficult and confusing. It is important for spouses to discuss and determine specific roles before the music begins. Too often families establish a dynamic in which the authority of the stepparent waxes and wanes. Sometimes a stepparent is offered the authority to parent the other spouse’s children, while in other situations, he or she is expected to step back. This approach causes confusion for kids and parents alike.

It is important for spouses to clearly define the role of the stepparent. A myriad of questions need to be addressed before the dance begins:

  • How does the parent of the children envision the role of the stepparent?
  • How does the stepparent define his/her role?
  • Does the stepparent have the authority to parent?
  • If so is this authority situational or is it consistent?
  • How should spouses handle situations in which they disagree on parenting issues?
  • Have the children been clearly made aware of the role of the stepparent?
  • Have their ideas regarding the role of the stepparent been identified and discussed?

It is important to go into a new marriage with a clear understanding of the stepparent’s role. It is also important to consider how the children will react to parenting decisions made by spouses. Older children should be offered the opportunity to weigh in on the conversation. Toward this end, parents should provide a forum in which the stepparent’s role is clearly discussed and defined. Certain factors will contribute to decisions regarding the stepparent’s role:

  • The stepparent’s comfort with the assigned role.
  • How long has the stepparent known the children?
  • The age of the children. Younger children are of course more likely to respond to a stepparent’s authority than older children may be.

Statistics tell us that the more times you have been divorced and re-married, the greater chance that your next marriage will result in failure. Marriage is a wonderful and often difficult convention. It is all about building trust, offering support and guidance when warranted, and most of all perhaps, compromise.

Few people are more precious to us than our children. In the pursuit to be “lucky in love” it is also essential to ensure that children are included in the life-changing decisions we make for ourselves, marriage is no exception. A remarriage involving children and the subsequent blending of a family is certainly a family affair.

The role of a stepparent is often not easy or, for that matter fair. Spouses who thoroughly discuss parenting roles and expectations stand a much better chance of ensuring that a commitment to each other extends to the children. After all, no stepparent or child wants to feel like they are engaged in a battle or caught in crossfire.

The story of Cinderella contributed to a cultural misinterpretation of the role of a stepparent. As Mike and Carol Brady have taught us however, blending a family is not only possible but also joyous. The stepparent waltz may be difficult to master, but once families develop the appropriate rhythm, they learn to keep time to the music without constantly stepping on each other’s toes.

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