Changing the Rules
Ron L. Deal
“You’re just saying ‘No’ because he wants you to.” Kids are really good at sending parents on guilt trips. This is one that biological parents hear at some point when a child is balking at a change in rule or expectation due to a stepparents input. Let’s face it—the addition of a stepparent to the parenting process will surely result in at least one change of expectation. Unless a biological parent holds tight to control and never opens themselves to the input of the stepparent (which I don’t recommend) something is going to change eventually. This is acceptable and to be expected. But managing the change with children is the tough part.
Keep the Parental Unity Rules
Before I make suggestions for making changes to established rules or expectations, let’s review what I call the parenting unity rules. This parental working agreement will help parent and stepparent have a strong base from which to make changes when necessary.
- Rule #1: Be proactive. Don’t wait until problems occur to discuss behavioral expectations, preferred methods of punishment and consequences to be enforced, and the values you wish to instill in the children.
- Rule #2: When in doubt, call a parental “powwow.” Tell the children, “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that” so you can have a parental meeting to discuss the situation. This response communicates to the kids that you seek, respect and honor the stepparent’s input in parenting decisions and it will speak volumes about your unity as a couple. This will help to dissolve their efforts to “divide and conquer” the marriage. Even if it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable, go the extra mile to ensure parental agreement. You won’t regret it.
- Rule #3: If the biological parent doesn’t appreciate how the stepparent handled a given situation, have a private discussion. The biggest mistake a biological parent can make is to make negative, critical comments about the stepparent in front of the kids. The second mistake is to reverse the decision. Either of those responses robs their authority, which is already under scrutiny by the kids. Listen openly to the stepparent’s explanation of what happened (kids often leave out significant details). If you don’t agree with how something happened or a decision made, acknowledge the stepparent’s good intentions and then discuss an alternative plan for the next time: “I appreciate that you were trying to teach Rebecca a lesson. I understand what you were attempting to accomplish, but given Rebecca’s personality, I’m wondering if you could handle it a little differently next time.” Refrain from turning this into a competition. The goal should be to find a solution that you can both support.
When Making Changes
From the time they are born, children are learning the expectations and behavioral management style of their parents. They become accustomed to rules and expectations over time and settle into them. When rules change, children adapt (after a bit of grumbling) because they give their parent the right to make the changes. When stepparents enter the picture and influence changes, children often struggle with the stepparent’s authority to make those changes. That’s when they complain or protest to their biological parent. Biological parents must take seriously how they support the status of the stepparent to their children. Here are some guidelines to help couples communicate the changes, especially when the stepparent’s opinion has obviously contributed to the change.
- Remember to powwow in order to find unity in the new expectation. Then decide how to communicate the changes.
In general, communicate changes in rules or expectations to the children together. It’s best if the biological
parent take the lead in sharing the change with the stepparent standing beside them. This is particularly important
in the early years of your marriage. The stepparent can certainly add to the conversation but the biological
parent’s voice should be clearly heard.
- If a child disrespects the stepparent, correct them in front of the stepparent. This clearly communicates to both the stepparent (who will appreciate being backed) and the child the expectation that children respect their stepparent.
A biological parent may need to communicate the change privately (without the stepparent) if:
- a child continually challenges the new rule (e.g., “you’re just doing this because they want you to). The biological parent should recognize the change for the child, stand up for the couple’s unity, and let their voice be heard. “You are right. You now have to wash your own laundry because he/she brought it to my attention. But we have discussed it thoroughly and I am in agreement. I’m sure you are bummed about this—I can’t blame you. But this is how it’s going to be from now on.”
- a child is highly sensitive to the issue at hand or feels on display or embarrassed about the circumstances. For example, restricting computer use because the child visited inappropriate web sites or working through boyfriend/girlfriend matters may be best handled by the biological parent alone. Again, powwow together as a couple to determine the best way to handle these situations.
Effective parenting requires cooperation and unity. Given differing levels of authority with children, a parent and stepparent must be dedicated to this process. But it is well worth the effort.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.