What role does a stepparent have in parenting?
Integrating a stepparent into an already established family structure can be a sensitive, and potentially stressful, situation. What do you do when a conflict arises between parent and stepparent, or between stepparent and child? I’m here to assure you that there is no one-answer-fits-all, only what works best for your family. I have the benefit of having experienced multiple perspectives in this area. I am a mom, I have been a stepmom, and my children currently have a stepmom.
Stepparents enjoy a powerful role in the family, often having as much influence in a child’s life as a natural parent. And, speaking from the perspective of someone whose family utilizes a 50/50 timesharing arrangement, I can also assure you that I have encountered situations in which I have questioned the appropriate thing to do. But there are a few things I am sure of.
How involved in the everyday life of the child should a stepparent be?
Short answer: Very. It is important for my children, and for myself, to know that there is someone there when I cannot be.
One argument to the contrary that we hear most often is that “that job [whatever the step was asked to take care of] is their father/mother’s responsibility.” My reaction… Why? When we were married, we were a team. Each of us is better at some tasks than the other. Now there’s another parent in the mix. Is that parent better at some tasks than either I or my children’s dad is? Why would I not want the person who handles something better to help my child learn and grow? If you have more patience to teach my child to tie his/her shoes, then you go for it! If you want to teach my child to play piano because you can and I cannot, go for it!
I put my children’s best interests first and foremost. Assuming the stepparent is not deliberately trying to interrupt bonding between a parent and child, it is important to have her involved. The bottom line… the more people who love my children, the better.
Should a stepparent have input in the parenting plan?
There will always be more to consider when a stepparent enters the picture, especially, if the step is accompanied by children from a previous relationship. All parents should work together to cause the least amount of disruption in the lives of everyone, including stepparents.
Any parenting plan should promote a positive relationship between the natural parents and their children, above all else. It is a delicate time for everyone involved when creating a parenting plan. Listen to suggestions. First, determine if what is proposed is in the best interest of the child. Second, consider if there might be a negative effect on your life or relationship. Then examine the issue from the perspectives of everyone else who will be impacted by the decision before reaching a conclusion.
If you hit an impasse, the mother and father must take first consideration. No doubt, it can be difficult to balance a conflict between a new spouse and a former spouse. It can feel like a competition in which you must take a side. Remember that the side to be taken is always that of the children. Do not forget the silent party.
How should communication work between a stepparent and the other parent?
Ideally, everyday communications (about homework, doctor appointments, after-school activities, etc.) should not be an issue between steps and natural parents. However, any disagreements should be handled strictly parent-to-parent. The relationship between natural parent and stepparent is already a difficult one to navigate; there is no reason to make it harder.
Obviously, open communication is not always possible. But emergency situations should require such communication between all parties. If my child is with her stepmom when something happens, I expect her stepmom to contact me. If something happens when my child is with me, and I can’t reach their father, their stepmom is the next person I call.
How much should the stepparent be involved in discipline?
Children should be encouraged to respect their stepparents as people, as adults, and as leaders in their homes. Stepparent should have the same authority as babysitters or teachers when it comes to discipline. As a stepmom, it was “my house; my rules.” You will obey my rules regardless if you are my child, my stepchild, or a neighborhood child.
However, any strict discipline should be left to the natural parent, thus avoiding unnecessary and possibly invented conflict between the other natural parent and the stepparent, or between the child and the stepparent. In my years as a stepmother, there was no situation that required severe discipline that couldn’t wait until my husband could decide that punishment himself.
Co-parenting can be difficult with just two parents in the mix. Adjusting for steps adds an additional layer of complexity. Open communication and respect for the feelings and thoughts of all involved parents can make raising your child easier. However, the most important task for any parent is to put their children first. Make a conscious effort to separate whether you are in conflict because of their interests or your own. The lines can get blurred.
This is especially important when parents have reached an impasse. Avoid making a major decision without all parents having had input. Most decisions do not require immediate action, despite how you might feel in the moment. Doing so could have detrimental effects on the children and leave them with the feeling of having to choose sides. That is never acceptable. With thoughtfulness and some effort, you can make co-parenting with a step work.