When a new man enters the family, some things – like discipline – get complicated.
Let’s face it, there are some things that are great about being a solo parent. You don’t have to cook hearty meals every night, you can paint the walls whatever colour you please and you don’t have to have sex if you don’t want to!
It is also totally up to you how you bring up your kids. This can be a burden, as we all know, but it also means there is no parental conflict in the home over issues like family traditions, rules or discipline.
Although Prince Charming may not have appeared yet, it’s worth thinking about how this will change once a man enters your life; and worth learning a few pain-saving tips ahead of time. Sitting in front of me are five books from the library about living in a blended or step-family situation. They all say the same thing: it’s hard! In fact, many of those interviewed say it is the toughest thing they have ever done.
There are four common problem areas for step-families: discipline, time, money and beliefs (about how families should do things, e.g. table manners). While two biological parents can also struggle with these issues, resolving them can be much harder when there are children from previous relationships.
Discipline is often the first issue that comes up – long before you marry or move in together. For example, let’s say your new partner is looking after your five-year-old son while you are out. The child hits him with a toy. Does he growl at him and send him to his room… or does he wait for you to come home and do it?
Obviously every case is going to be different. Who does the discipline – and how and when – is going to be hugely affected by the age of the children, how old they were when you entered the new relationship, their relationship with their biological parent and the type of relationship between step-parent and step-children.
But every book and every expert says the same thing: go slowly! The most important thing for the step-parent to do is build a relationship with the children. He should stay out of discipline until he has a positive relationship with them, slowly gaining their trust and affection. Discipline without relationship breeds resentment.
Family therapist and step-mother Nancy Morrow-Hogg says communication between the adults is vital. A couple should establish a behaviour code they can both live with, but have the natural parent enforce it, at least in the early days.
“There are other ways a mother can empower her new partner. For example, she can say to the children, “Go ask Steve, see what he thinks’ or ‘Steve and I are not happy with your manners.’”
After working with step-families for 20 years, Nancy says she strongly advises couples with children to delay living together.
“You really need to build your own relationship before you move in together. What we see all the time is people moving in together, with their kids, after three or four months. Disaster!
“I say give yourselves 12 months. In that time you will have experienced the other person in a wide range of situations. Your own relationship needs to be solid in order to be a united front for the children.”
One of the best maxims to remember is Steven Covey’s “seek first to understand.”
As the biological mother, remember that you are irrationally committed to your children. That you will struggle with hearing any sort of criticism about them… and that you may tend to be over-protective. A friend of mine says she finds it really hard when her fiancee disciplines her two-year-old son, even though he does exactly what she would do.
“We’ve been together since (my son) was a tiny baby and Tim is his Daddy in all respects. And yet there’s just something in me that finds it incredibly difficult when Tim growls at him or disciplines him.”
Remember too that raising someone else’s kids is a tough assignment. Without history or biology, a step-parent will be more quickly annoyed by bad behaviour than the natural parent. He will often feel understandably frustrated, powerless and resentful of the way the children intrude on the relationship.
It’s easy for the step-parent to think that his step-children are little monsters. It’s easy for a biological mother to feel her partner is too harsh. But it’s worth remembering the following quote, from Suzie Hayman’s The Relate Guide (Random House):
“The problems you face are likely to be the result of the situation rather than because you are uniquely inadequate or the children are uniquely wicked.”
Nancy Morrow –Hogg has a great saying for everyone in a blended or step-family: “Let things go over your head and not up your nose!” And if things are flying up noses, get help. Don’t be your own counsellor. Research shows that most step-families, including those who had been highly successful, sought professional advice at some stage.
Relationship Services is a non-government, not-for-profit agency which provides skilled counselling and education services throughout New Zealand. You can read more about their services and contact details in our article Relationship Services.