Stepparent Households

 

A Common Problem

            Whether anyone likes it or not, divorce, remarriage, and therefore, stepparents are a reality—even in Christian families.  The fact that divorce causes a great deal of pain for adults is sad.  The fact that divorce causes even more pain for children of broken homes is sadder still.  However, refusing to face the fact that this problem exists will not help.  Christian children live with stepparents for a variety of reasons.  For some, it is because their parents came to Christ after suffering the agony of divorce.  For others, it is because Christian parents divorced and remarried with biblical grounds.  For others still, it may even be because Christian parents divorced and remarried without biblical grounds. 

            Regardless of the circumstances that preceded a stepparent situation, what is done is done.  The goal of this booklet is not to assign guilt, but rather to learn why a special kind of friction exists in a stepparent home, and to discover some practical ways to make the best of what is, frankly, a less-than-ideal situation.

            And in case you are not aware, not only is the reality of stepparent homes increasingly common, it is a fact that there are certain unique problems that are common to stepparent households.  What are they?  A few of the most common include children who resent stepparents and therefore have an attitude that (whether verbally or not) says, You are not my mother/father; I don’t have to listen to you!  Then there are the stepparents who are sure that their spouses are far too lenient on their own biological children.  And of course, there are the biological parents who cannot understand why their mates are such strict and overbearing stepparents.

            While each of these three is a generality, they are most generally true in epidemic proportions.

“Our situation is different…”

            In nearly 20 years of pastoral counseling, far and away the greatest number of family counseling problems I have been called on to help solve is related to these and other stepparent problems.  This is so true that I make it a standard practice in premarital counseling to tell couples who have children from previous relationships that this will be one of their biggest hurdles.  And almost invariably, my words are met with questioning stares and the common, confident rebuttal, “That is not a problem in our case.” 

            While I wish this calmed my fears, it serves only to heighten them, because it is almost always the folks who insist that their situation is different who are back in a few months or a year because of stepparent problems.  Not only was their problem not different, it was compounded by naiveté and an unwillingness to face the facts that spell trouble with a capital “T”.

            “But we’ve talked to the kids and they are happy we are getting married— they love him or her (the soon-to-be stepparent).”  What the couple fails to realize is that it is likely that the children do not understand the dynamics of what lies ahead, or they are simply being less than honest.  Few, if any, children can comprehend life in a stepparent household—especially if they have never been in one.  They do not know how they are going to feel when they discover that they are going to have to share their mom or dad with a new member of the household—especially when, in some ways, the stepparent will become a greater priority in their parent’s life than they are.

            As for being less than honest, put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  Children of broken marriages are dealing with all sorts of stresses.  Many blame themselves for their parent’s divorce.  These are so afraid of saying or doing anything that might keep their parent from being happy, they will say anything if they think that is what the parent wants to hear.  This seems to be among the most common reasons a child lends a hearty endorsement to a parent’s remarriage, even though many children of broken marriages secretly hold out hope that their parents will reconcile—no matter how final the divorce is in the minds of the parents.  Disney’s movie “The Parent Trap” accurately portrays this hope that lives within many children.  The “happily ever after” ending of the film and reconciliation of the former marriage may make for a great movie, but seldom, if ever, does it happen in real life.

            At the risk of sounding like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, while what I am describing is almost always the case, there are exceptions.  There are two cases in which a child is likely to fare better in a stepparent household.  The first is a child whose parent is remarrying either after a divorce when the child was so young that he or she did not know what a two-parent family was like.  The second is a child whose other parent was such a scoundrel that the child truly dislikes that estranged parent.  These are the exception, not the rule, however.

Generalities

            Generalities are statements that are usually true, but about which there are exceptions.  The following three statements are generalities about stepparent households.  There are exceptions, but the statements are most usually true.

Biological parents in a stepparent household are generally too lenient.  There are understandable reasons for this.  The first is that as a biological parent, there is a tenderness toward the child that only the biological parent has.  This concern is often compounded by the biological parent’s compassion for the child because of all he or she has been through during the divorce, and the time spent in a single-parent home.  If only Christian parents would understand that the perfect demonstration of love involves firm discipline, as well as tender affection. 

            The second reason biological parents tend to be too lenient is fear that the child will prefer the other biological parent.  Biological parents, whether they realize it or not, are often found competing for their child’s love.  The fear that the child will want to live more permanently with the other biological parent looms large in these parents’ minds, even if they are not conscious of it—or worse—even if they deny it.

            Third, biological parents are often too lenient because they are trying to compensate for the fact that the stepparent is too strict.  While it is a human response, perfect love does not do wrong to compensate for another wrong.  Perfect love simply does what is right.  This is something that biological parents in a stepparent home must face and deal with.  If the stepparent is too strict, the biological parent should discuss and seek to resolve the matter with the stepparent, rather than overcompensating with an overly lenient hand with the child.  Why?  Because more than likely, this will only exacerbate the problem, pushing the stepparent to be even more strict, if not resentful.

Stepparents are generally too strict. There are understandable reasons for this, as well.  The first is that the stepparent has a more objective eye.  Because he or she does not have the same kinds of tender feelings for the child that drive the biological parent, he or she is moved less by feelings and more by facts.  I remember when I was a child, hearing my father jokingly say, “We all ought to trade children, since we all seem to be better at raising other people’s kids.”  While I certainly do not advocate “trading children,” there is a certain truth to the observation that we all seem to be better at raising other people’s kids.  The reason?  Objectivity.  We can see the mistakes others make with their kids because we are not blinded by child worship.[1]

            The second reason stepparents are often too strict is due to their attempt to compensate for the over-leniency they perceive in the children’s biological parent.  Just as a biological parent’s over leniency in compensation for an excessively strict stepparent only makes matters worse, so it happens when a stepparent is overly strict as a compensatory act intended to counter the lenient biological parent.

            Third, stepparents tend to be too strict because some actually grow to resent the stepchild.  While in few cases is this a conscious attitude demonstrated in vicious or malicious manner, for some, the stepchild is a reminder of the child’s other biological parent, their spouse’s previous mate.  This can be made worse if the ex-spouse is also a source of aggravation in the marriage.  In addition, there is a subtle tendency to resent the little person who interrupts some of the freedom the marriage might otherwise enjoy.  It is often worse if the child has gotten into trouble in school or with the law: trouble that causes stress and that costs time and money.

            A further complication may be introduced if and when children are born into a stepparent household.  While few, if any, will ever admit or even realize it, many stepparents will show some degree of favoritism towards his or her own children over their stepchildren.  Again, this is not usually done in a conscious or malicious manner, but the stepchildren will notice it even if no one else does.

Stepchildren know how to manipulate both parents, and they generally do—whether consciously or not.  Children may be cute and lovable, but they are sinners.  Like all sinners, regardless of age, they will naturally do what is necessary to gain personal advantage.  This is not to say that these children (or any others) are wicked to the core, or as sinful as they could be.  God’s restraining grace keeps us all from that.  Understanding and facing the fact of sin, however, will help biological parents deal more prudently with their offspring. [2]  Children know how to play parent against parent, and stepchildren know how to play parent against stepparent,  arousing the sympathies of the biological parent. [3]  Children in stepparent families know how to play this game adding their other biological parent into the mix, if and when it serves them.  This is especially true when the stepparent and the other biological parent are less than affable with each other.

           Pointing out these generalities about biological parents, stepparents and children in stepparent homes is by no means an attempt to malign any of the three parties.  It is simply a greater benefit in the quest for harmonious living to know and understand something about the hurdles on the racetrack before bumping into them.

Practical keys to harmonious living in a stepparent family. 

            As in the previous section, I will offer my observations and advice in three sections, one each to the biological parents, stepparents, and finally, to the stepchildren.

Counsel for Biological Parents.  Your role is key.  After all, you are the one who is responsible to God for your children.  Here are three bits of advice that I believe are crucial for your success.

            First, keep your priorities in order.  Biological parents must love and respect their spouses (Ephesians 5:22-33), while being responsible before God for their children (Ephesians 6:4).  In the home in which a mother and father live with their own biological children, I counsel married couples to place their first domestic priority on loving each other, followed by loving their children.  This is not to say that we are to love our children less than our mates.  Hopefully, we love them equally, but differently.  This is not a matter of assigning degrees of love as much as it is a matter of assigning priorities

            For example, human life requires oxygen, water, and food—in that order.  We cannot live without any one of these three, but we must place a greater priority on oxygen since we can live without water and food longer than we can live without oxygen.  In a similar manner, while we must love both spouses and children, we do well to give a greater priority to our mates than to our children because the children thrive most in a stable marriage where by example we teach them how to be married when they are adults.  At the risk of sounding redundant, I am not saying: Love mates more than children.  I am saying love both, but give priority to the marriage relationship.

            That said, to a stepparent household I offer slightly different counsel.  As the biological parent in a stepparent household, you have a responsibility to your children that predates, and therefore must in some ways come before your relationship with your spouse.  This is not to say you are to love your children more than you love your spouse.  It is to say that your primary responsibility to your child requires certain priorities to be given to your child, even ahead of your mate.  Hopefully, there would not be an instance in which “either-or” choices of this nature must be made.  In the unfortunate instance in which your stepparent-spouse may demand your attention when your child really needs to be given first priority, you must take care of your child. 

            Stepparents and would-be stepparents do well to understand this ahead of time.  When stepparents love their spouses unselfishly, as they ought, they will understand and encourage their spouses to see to the needs of the children.

            Second, beware of over-leniency.  As a biological parent, be wise enough to realize your natural tendency to be too lenient, and be on guard to avoid succumbing to this tendency.  Remember that love is fair, not lenient.

            Third, honor your child’s other parent.  As a biological parent, beware never to dishonor your children’s other biological parent.[4]  Failing to follow this counsel by dishonoring your child’s other parent is likely to have two consequences.  First, the child will be encouraged to break the fourth commandment to honor his father and mother (Exodus 20:12) and an apostolic command to obey his parents (Ephesians 6:1-3).  Remember Jesus’ words about those who cause one of the little ones to stumble; it is better for them that a mill stone be tied around their necks and cast into the sea (Matthew 18:6).

            Second, assuming that the child does love and honor his or her other parent as he should, the parent who dishonors that child’s other parent is inviting retaliation.  The reason?  That child is likely to perceive the reason for the disrespect shown to his or her other parent as being instigated by the stepparent.  When that happens, look out!

Counsel for Stepparents.  Stepparents will do themselves, and the rest of the family, a world of good if they will understand and remain in their roll.  And what is that roll?  Stepparent, not parent.  Here are a few ways to accomplish this.

            First, respect and support your spouse.  Remember that the biological parent has a relationship with that child the predates yours.  Respect and support your spouse’s leadership in your stepchild’s life.  Never dispute, or in any other way, undermine the parental leadership of the biological parent in the eyes of the stepchild.  If a decision concerning the child is made by the biological parent that you feel you must discuss with him or her, speak to the biological parent privately, never in the presence of the child.  And even then, remember that the child’s parent is ultimately responsible to God for that child; you are not.

            Second, don’t try to be what you are not.  Do not presume to be your stepchild’s parent unless he or she initiates and sustains it.  Do not refer to that child as “my son” or “my daughter” since you are not.  Expecting a child to call a person mom or dad when that person is not his or her mom or dad, and especially if the other biological parent is still in the picture, is simply wrong.  If the child wants to call you mom or dad, fine, but let the child make that call if and when he or she wants to.

            Third, never communicate your dislike for your stepchild’s other biological parent.  If you do, you encourage the child to dishonor his or her parents and you invite that child’s retaliation.  In the event that the other biological parent actually is a difficult or bad person, let the child discover that without you being the herald who announces it.

            In general, think of yourself as a wise and caring older sibling.  Except in cases in which as an adult you must be in charge, always point your stepchild to his or her parent for advice and leadership.  Then support the biological parent’s decision.

Counsel for Stepchildren.  The following are more likely to be read by parents and stepparents than by stepchildren.  For that reason, parents should teach the following concepts to their children.

            First, children must honor and obey their parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-3).  In a slightly different way, children are to respect and be subject to adults (1 Peter 5:5).  Stepparents may not be parents, but they are adults and therefore deserve a measure of respect and obedience.  Unless a person in authority is commanding you to do what God forbids, or forbidding you to do what God commands, you are to obey those in authority (1 Peter 2:13-14).

            Second, other people’s errors do not relieve you of your responsibilities.  Nowhere in scripture are we taught that a person is relieved of his or her responsibility to obey God because someone else has failed in his or her responsibility to obey God.  What this means is that even if parents and stepparents are doing everything all wrong (seldom does anyone do everything all wrong!) children and stepchildren are not free to dishonor, disrespect, or disobey parents or other adults who are in a position of authority over them.

            Third, look at the example of Jesus Himself.  In Luke 2:51, when Jesus was a boy of twelve years, he “was subject to them,” speaking of both Joseph and Mary.  Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father.  God was Jesus’ Father; Joseph was His stepfather.  Yet, Jesus was subject to both Mary and Joseph.  Which of us is above our Lord Jesus?  If Jesus was subject to His stepparent, how much more ought other stepchildren to be subject to theirs?

In Conclusion.  I am abundantly blessed that I grew up in a household with both my mother and father.  I have been happily married to the same woman since I was eighteen years old.  I did not learn about broken homes or blended families by being in one.  I did not learn about stepparents and stepchildren by being either.  I have, however, spent an untold number of hours counseling people who have experienced the best, and the worst, of this circumstance.  What I have presented in this booklet is my humble attempt to help others avoid being yet another family in crisis.  If you can learn from the misadventures of others, and choose to follow any of my counsel, and if what I have shared is helpful, thank the Lord.

Appendix A

Competing with a Disneyland Dad

            One of the most common laments of single parents is about the “competition” they feel with so-called “Disneyland Dads.” [5]  A Disneyland Dad is one who treats the children to lots of fun, excitement, and material possessions that the other parent either cannot, or will not, provide in like manner.  There are two basic reasons a parent might be a Disneyland Dad.  First, he or she may have greater financial resources than the other parent. Second, while he or she may not have greater financial means, he or she may simply be financially irresponsible, spending what he or she does not really have. 

            This situation is often exacerbated when the Disneyland Dad is not a believer.  When this is the case, that parent feels no sense of financial responsibility to tithe and, therefore, has more money to spend.  When the Disneyland Dad is not a believer, he or she is not likely to have many scruples about overindulging a child, especially with things that the Christian parent would rightly consider worldly and bad for the child.  In extreme cases, in addition to simply treating the child to more “fun,” the non-Christian Disneyland Dad is likely to overindulge the child with “ungodly fun.”  Because children are humans, and therefore sinners, they are easily lured toward the Disneyland Dad, away from the other parent, and from the Lord.

            When the Christian parent sees this, he or she is understandably troubled.  What is he or she to do?  Here are three bits of counsel that will help you maintain your equilibrium, your sanity, and your testimony.

            First, resist the temptation to compete.  This is especially true if you do not have the means.  Going into debt or becoming financially irresponsible in this kind of contest will ruin everything from finances to the relationship with the child.  Live within your means.  Provide what is wise for your child, regardless of what the Disneyland Dad does.[6]

            Second, look at the long term.  Children can easily be swayed by a Disneyland Dad.  However, children do grow up; and when they do, they will almost always see the wisdom of the non-Disneyland Dad.  While children may not understand that money cannot buy everything, when they mature, they will; and they will see that what money was really seeking to buy was them!  When that sinks in, they will thank the down-to-earth parent for the stability he or she provided.  It may take time, but in the long run, they will see it.

            Third, trust in the Lord.  As trite as that may seem, what better hope is there than hope that is placed in the Lord?  Continue to model and teach your faith to your child as much or as little as he or she is with you.  While you cannot force a child to believe, you do have the right to insist that your child be respectful toward you and your faith.[7]  Continue to pray that the Holy Spirit of God will protect your children, that He will grant them wisdom not to be swayed into the world, and that they will see through the attempts to purchase him or her away from you and the Lord with worldly materialism.

            In conclusion, remember that if your child has a Disneyland Dad, your situation is not unique.  Remain steadfast in your commitment to exercise godly wisdom in executing your responsibilities as a single parent—no matter what obstacles are placed before your child. 

Appendix B

Remarriage After Being Widowed

             Most of what has been written in this booklet is based on remarriage after a divorce.  What about those who find themselves in the position of being single parents because they have been widowed?  How are these people to handle the potential of remarriage?  Here are three things to consider.

            First, widowed people are biblically free to remarry.  The Bible speaks of married people and single people.  There is no third category.  Therefore, once a person is widowed, that person is free to marry.  Social mores and common sense, however, would both frown on bringing a date to your deceased spouse’s funeral.  While no law exists that demands waiting for any set amount of time before remarrying, some period of waiting is prudent.

            Add children to the mix, and that time may need to be even longer.  Why?  Because while the widowed adult may find a new companion in short order, children are likely to have a harder time making the transition to accept a replacement for their departed parent.  Granted, the stepparent in this situation is not a replacement parent, but children often have a harder time understanding that than a bereaved adult might—especially if the bereaved adult is lonely and desperately longs for a spouse.  What then?

            Second, widowed people with children must be sensitive to the feelings of their children.  Children are likely to feel that their departed parent is being forgotten or brushed under the carpet of memory if a new spouse is brought in too quickly.  This sensitivity is heightened if the child has no opportunity to develop a relationship and bond with the potential stepparent.  Therefore, include the children in the process.  They are not to be matchmakers for their widowed parent, but they should have some input into who is (in their minds) taking their deceased parent’s place.

            Because children want their parents to be happy, they will often say what they think you want to hear regarding a potential spouse.  Do not take their words of affirmation concerning that person at face value.  Instead, read their body language and observe how well they really do like and relate to the person.

            Third, distrust your own judgment.  Distrust your own impressions of the situation enough to ask, and heed, the advice of an objective person who knows your children well, and who loves you too much to tell you what you want to hear if it is not the truth.  Ask that third party to honestly evaluate how the children are feeling about a potential new mate.  Insist that he or she be brutally honest with you.  Then pay attention.

            Finally, bear in mind that your children are not “in charge.”  Children who are not warming up to the idea of remarriage or to the person at hand as quickly as you might like are not in the position to allow or disallow you to remarry.  If you are sensitive to them, however, their unsettled reaction may be a signal for you to do two things.  First, be patient.  Remember the words of 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is patient.”   If yours is a true love, and if it is of the Lord, the relationship need not be rushed.

            Second, be involved.  If your children feel rushed, it is likely that you need to invest more of yourself in them so that they will be able to bond with their potential new stepparent.  Remember that your new interest in a potential spouse has diverted your full attention away from them to one degree or another.  They were used to receiving your full attention and may simply need more time to become comfortable with the person and/or the situation.

            In conclusion, widowed parents have not received a life sentence to singleness.  However, because they do have children to consider, they need to proceed with caution, listen to and read their children’s true feelings, and give attention to objective counsel on the situation.  Beyond that, the same counsel for stepparents applies to those who marry a widowed parent as apply to those who marry a divorced parent.


[1] Child worship is a phrase I first read in “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall.  Child-worshiping parents tend to think their little lambs are incapable of doing wrong.  It amazes me how even among Reformed believers who hold tenaciously to the doctrine of total depravity think it often true except when it comes to their children!

[2] I say this will help biological parents because stepparents seldom have any trouble believing that their stepchildren are sinners.

[3] The fine art of playing parent against parent is by no means unique to stepparent households.  Children who live with both biological parents are equal masters of this ploy.

[4] It is also wise to remember that at one time you cared somewhat for that person, as well.

[5] Disneyland dads are not all male.  There are Disneyland Moms, as well. For simplicity, I will refer to both Disneyland Dads and Disneyland Moms simply as Disneyland Dads.

[6] In resisting the temptation to compete, refuse to speak or communicate negative or judgmental thoughts about your child’s other parent.  This is a grave error that when committed, will spoil all.  Teach them right from wrong, but do not let it turn into an attack on the other parent.

[7] Forcing a strict regimen of religious practice on your child may be used by a disgruntled ex-spouse in court to paint you as a “religious fanatic.”  Do not insist on more Christian activity than is reasonable, remembering that the courts are often rather godless.