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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.

1.    Remember to powwow in order to find unity in the new expectation. Then decide how to communicate the changes.

2.    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.

3.    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 President of Smart Stepfamilies, an expert in remarriage and stepfamily relationships, and author of a series of DVD’s and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily: Sevens Steps to a Healthy Family.



Comments ( 5 )
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#5: by melissa seeley on 05.11.2011 @ 11:03am CDT

This issue is a big one for my family. My husband had five children when I met him and we had three together since then. The range of ages is from one to twenty one. His oldest does not live with us and we very rarely see him. His second eldest is nineteen and has lived with us for the last year. She has recently been diagnosed with Luekemia so that has made things a little more interesting around our house. The other three children from my husbands first marriage currently live primarily with their mother although we are trying to get custody of them at this time. And of course our little ones live with us. All three are under the age of five. During the school year we only get the other children every other weekend, which seems to be just enough time for them to show up, trash our house and leave. I then spend the next two weeks cleaning up everything that they left skattered all over our house. We are trying to set up a chore system for them but so far it's been nothing but a struggle. They try to play the whole, "oh its not fair, we should not have to do anything, we dont live here and this isnt our mess." Its very hard when they are not there for very long. There is so much going on during those weekends that too often they get out of doing anything and that just reinforces them not doing their chores.
#4: by jg on 03.15.2011 @ 10:34pm CDT

My husband and I have been together for 5 years and married for a year and half. He has a 12 year old son who is the oldest at his mom's and the youngest at our house. He used to get his way all of the time and never had to clean his own room much less any other chores. We made the transition slowly so it wouldn't be as hard on anyone involved yet his ex wife's husband informed him last week that his son never wants to come back to our house again because he is unhappy and tormented. All of this happened after my husband finally followed through with punishments for lying and disobeying. They told my husband that if he makes his on come to visit they'll take him to court. This of course has my husband extremely upset! He feels that he did something wrong. I on the other hand feel that he finally did something right! My 4 kids have always had rules and chores and didn't understand any kid that didnt! We have gone through so much chaos and emotional turmoil with my step son and my husbands family over my step son it is purely by the grace of God that we are still together!
#3: by MK on 03.10.2011 @ 03:16pm CST

We are actually living out this article in our home right now. My husband and I have been married for 4 years. My three children (now grown and out on their own) were raised with 3 rules: Respect other people, respect other people's things, and clean up after yourself. His 4 boys (3 still living with us, ages 14, 16, 18) were raised with a few rules, but they were rarely enforced. After we were married, our home became a battlefield as his boys were conditioned to fighting with their father and throwing fits to get their own way. Needless to say, it caused some major arguments between me and my husband (we only argued in private). After meeting with numerous Christian family counselors who weren't able to help, we finally met with one of our pastors who helped us put together some family rules and consequences for not following them, along with the Scriptures to back them up. Funny how it turned out to be the same 3 rules that my own kids were raised with! I sat by my husband as he read these rules to the boys, then he posted them on the wall. The boys were very angry, and were even angrier when they immediately began experiencing the consequences of intentionally not following them. They are blaming me for implementing these new rules even though they know the pastor who is counseling us. To be honest, after 4 years of dealing with their chaos and disrespect, I really don't care if they blame me because they are finally reaping what they have sown and our home is slowly becoming more peaceful. Also, my husband and I aren't arguing about them nearly as much. However, the 18 year old has announced that he isn't willing to abide by our rules and will be joining the Air Force after he graduates from high school in June. My husband and I are supporting his decision because we feel he will do a lot of growing up in the military. And guess what? The military has even stricter rules! :)
#2: by Chris on 03.04.2011 @ 01:27pm CST

We are recently married and my husband wants to deal with his 16 and 18 year old girls in his own way. I have a 17 year old son. My husband has custody of his girls two weeks out of the month. We set up ground rules/chores of requireing them to clean their room on Sundays; unload dishwasher twice per month and they have to tell us where they are going and come home on time. Well, the girls were used to having everything their way. They have not been back to our home in over 5 weeks and have not even called him. They posted notices on Facebook that they are never coming back. My husband is extremely hurt, frustrated, etc. My husband has been raising these girls for over 12 years and has been a wonderful father and admits to being too laid back with discipline. I feel like he blames me. I feel like he has his head buried in the sand with the issue with the girls. This is affecting us and we can make plans for our lives. Since we have my son 24hr/7day week, all eyes and scrutiny is on him. Very frustrating.
#1: by Frances on 03.01.2011 @ 08:45am CST

Enjoyed this blog. Yes, the changes must come slow too. My husband didn't have strong boundaries before and now his children are struggling with that as well as stronger rules around the house. He has allowed them to express their dislikes to him in a respectful way, and is meeting with one child alone to discuss other boundaries we have had to set for that child. It is challenging when you feel everyone is against you, but thanks for your great blogs.

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