Stepparenting - FamilyEducation

Stepparenting: Determining Who's the Boss

Stepparents may have to be encouraged to take charge of disciplining biological and stepchildren.

As with most things, even the experts can't agree on who's in charge when it comes to discipline. One school says the biological parent should be the one in authority. Another claims that the stepparent needs to become part of the team immediately and be supported by the biological parent. Probably something in between is preferable.

"My past experiences as a stepchild (both parents remarried) have helped me to understand the problem areas I could encounter with my stepson," Jody, mother of a stepson and two biological children said. "For example, punishments are dealt out by my husband. Being saddled with the stigma of being a stepmom, I didn't want to be the bad guy, too. This doesn't mean that transgressions against me by my stepson are not punished. They are simply reported to my husband for him to deal with. Fortunately, my husband backs me up ninety-five percent of the time. The remaining five percent are what cause friction between my husband and me. I didn't feel it was my place to start disciplining my stepson when my husband and I married. Alan was four years old when we met and his dad and I were married when Alan was eight years old."

Another stepmom, Lucille, told how she handled discipline problems with her fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Suzanne. She also has a son who is seven, and she and her second husband are the parents of two-year-old twins.

"In handling Suzanne I always have to keep her mom, dad, and stepdad in mind. If I don't, I get in hot water with any or all of them. This fear (on my part), makes me step back further (and let her get away with more) than my other kids. Her bio dad is overly protective and tends to excuse her when he shouldn't, and her mom and stepdad can often get defensive and not want to hear the whole story. It has gotten much better with all her other parents, but I am still not one hundred percent clear to deal with her misbehavior on my own. She knows this."

While discipline is important to bring respect and order into a household, the stepparent probably should move slowly in enforcing discipline in the early days of the marriage, unless he or she also brings children into the blended family. In either case, the biological parent should take the lead with necessary disciplining, while at the same time letting the stepparent see what the rules are, how they're enforced, and what discipline has been effective in the past. He or she also needs to let the children know that if the biological parent is absent, the stepparent is charged with the total responsibility of enforcing the household rules and maintaining discipline. It's very important for children to look at the parenting team as just that, a team, with both adult members fully vested with authority.

According to Eric Q. Tridas, medical director of the Child Development Center of Tampa Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's, "Children and parents may be engaged in a family partnership, but the parents are the managing partners. They have the experience, capital, and the responsibility to take charge." Even if you're a stepparent who has never had children, you still have life experience. Think of becoming a stepparent as a battlefield promotion: Now you're a leader.

Most of my interviews with biological parents said they encouraged the stepparent spouse to become involved in discipline immediately, with the caveat that he or she deferred to the biological parent when the adults disagreed. "That creates a united front when the children are present. We can argue our case behind closed doors," one mother said wryly.