Stepparenting: When Discipline Styles Differ

My second husband has never had children, but he disciplines mine from my first marriage from morning to night. No one can rest! From the moment the kids walk in the house he is on them to wash the dishes, clean their rooms, wash the dog. I cringe when he comes home. And, he lets nothing slide. Everything is an issue, from answering him back to washing out a cup. What can I do to keep this family together?


Jann Blackstone-Ford

Author of Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and Director of Bonus Families, a non-profit organization... Read more

You may find a little comfort in the fact that a difference in disciplinary techniques is the number one problem plaguing stepfamilies, and the turmoil this causes seems to be exaggerated when only one parent has had children.

We never know how we will react as parents, but it seems biology has a lot to do with it. Biology allows us to forget many of the mistakes our children make along the way, whereas, stepparents looks at things more literally. They don't have the benefit of biology and they form their allegiances through acts and deeds. If there is turmoil, stepparents are less likely to forgive and forget -- unless they have had practice and have built a bond with the stepchild. This takes time.
To further demonstrate, let's examine the difference in the way a biological parent and a stepparent may view various family disagreements. Remember, these are generalities and may not apply to every given situation.

First, biological parents learn to pick their battles with their kids. Everything doesn't have to be a federal case, and they may have a tendency to simply let some things go. Stepparents view this as "inconsistent" disciplinary tactics and often try to step in to compensate for the biological parent's inconsistency. This is why your husband stays on top of every chore. He thinks he's being a good parent.

Second, arguments between biological parents and their kids are soon forgotten, whereas stepparents view arguments with their stepchildren as "disrespectful." Respect is very important to stepparents, but often taken for granted by biological parents. Biological parents don't see arguments as a direct affront to their sensibilities. Stepparents do.

Thirdly, hugs, kisses, "I love you" and "I'm sorry" -- great ways to end disagreements -- are offered more freely to biological parents than stepparents. Coincidently, they are also offered more freely by biological parents than stepparents.

So, what I am I trying to say? Biological parents and stepparents simply view child-rearing differently, and as a result their disciplinary tactics are different.

The key to successful discipline in a stepfamily is for both the biological parent and the stepparent to get on the same page. When blending a family where both partners have children, sit down and discuss what you see as the proper disciplinary tactics before you marry or move in together. Establish your house rules together and then stick with them. All rules should apply equally to all family members.

If you are blending a family when only one parent has children, then obviously the biological parent has the last word, but that word must be consistent with the morals of the stepparent, or else it will never work. A stepparent who morally disagrees with your rules will not uphold them. For this reason, it is even more important to frankly discuss how you will handle various disciplinary situations should they arise. You have to have a meeting of the minds -- in your case, do things like establish a chore schedule for the kids, complete with rewards, and then both supervise the outcome.

Keep talking to each other. Keep listening to each other. Be honest and frank, but most of all be loving, and you will get through it. A note to your husband from a fellow stepparent: If you dwell on the bad and only see what the stepkids are not doing, you will be very unhappy. Set the stage for healing by looking for the good, and miraculous as it may seem, there will be more of it.


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