by Ron L. Deal
President, Smart Stepfamilies
What? You didn’t know there were any rules for maintaining parental unity. Well there are! And they are important! You were never meant to parent alone. That’s why God gave families two parents, instead of one. But a divided parenting team will falter frequently.
These rules will help you work together and keep you on the same side as a parental team. Remember, united you stand, but divided they fall.
· Rule #1: Be proactive. Before situations arise, try to talk about and anticipate boundary setting, expectations for behavior, limits you will enforce, your preferred modes of punishment, and the values you want to teach your children. Couples who get blind-sided by situations inadvertently find themselves on opposites more often than those who get out in front of parenting matters. You can’t anticipate everything, but being proactive will reduce the size of your blind-spots.
· Rule #2: When in doubt, call a parental “pow-wow.” At my house (Ron), our children will occasionally hear the words, “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that.” My wife and I then have what we call a “pow-wow” or meeting to discuss our decision or how we will handle a situation. This is not a statement of incapability. You may have functioned quite well for many years as a single dad and are quite capable of making decisions and moving on with life. This isn’t about that. It’s about finding unity. Even if it’s inconvenient, go the extra mile to ensure shared agreement in parenting matters. You won’t regret it.
If your children object saying, “You never had to ask anyone before” don’t back away from the process. “That’s true. Before I married your stepmother I didn’t have to consider anyone else. But she’s my wife and I need to include her in this. Now don’t ask again. I’ll get back to you once we’ve talked.”
· Rule #3: If you don’t appreciate how something was handled by the stepparent, call a private pow-wow to discuss it. Biological parents, the biggest mistake you can make in this situation is commenting negatively about your spouse in front of the kids or reversing their decision behind their back. Either of those responses under cuts his/her authority and power (which is already a delicate matter to begin with). Instead, first listen to their explanation (if you’ve heard from the children already, they may not have filled in all the details!). If you still wish the situation were handled differently, acknowledge their good intentions: “I appreciate that you were trying to teach Rebecca a lesson. I can see what you were trying to accomplish.” Then, calmly share your thoughts about the situation. This isn’t a competition. It’s about finding a shared position you can both support. Finally, negotiate what will happen “next time.”
· Rule #4: Communicate major changes in rules or expectations side-by-side. Standing as a united front communicates solidarity. Suppose one of your pow-wows has resulted in a rule change. If you are still in the early years of your family it’s likely best that the biological parent take the lead in sharing the change with your spouse (stepparent) standing right beside you. The stepparent can certainly add to the conversation but you want your stance to clearly communicate your agreement with the change.
“Alright gang, I know for many years I’ve not required you to help with cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, but were going to make some changes. From now on, if you don’t help prepare the meal plan to stay until the dishes are washed or put away and the counters are clean. I know this is a big change so we’re going to give you some graceful reminders over the next few days, but plan on learning the new system.”
If your children toss a guilt-trip objection your way saying, “You’re only making this change because he/she [the stepparent] wants you to,” stand your ground. “You are a smart kid. Yep, she initiated this discussion, but we wouldn’t be making the change unless I agreed to it. Now let’s get on with it.”