The parenting tasks faced by remarried couples tend to move partners into intense and opposing positions. Before the new marriage, the mate’s single-parent family system has probably become too permissive – for over time families with this type of structure tend to become lax and to bend the rules. The step-parent wants to effect some changes and establish her or his authority, but the stepchildren ignore or defy her requests. They’ve suffered through too many demands for change already, and want things to remain just as they were before she or he appeared upon the scene.

Is the parent right to want to go easy on the children and their often disrespectful behavior? Is the stepparent right to insist on more deference and more domestic order? One parent is too easy-going; the other responds by becoming more harsh. A ton of research has established that neither style is optimal when it comes to the children’s development and growth. The best style of child-rearing is authoritative – firm and yet loving; kind but setting clear limits on the child’s behavior.

Disciplining stepchildren is a particularly charged issue in remarried families, especially if the parents are polarized in opposing (too soft/too hard) positions. So is it okay for a stepparent to punish the biological parent’s child? The unequivocal answer is NO. Only the biological parent can mete out punishment, while the stepparent’s role is more like that of a monitor, nanny or aunt – he or she is in charge while the biological parent is absent but not entitled to punish misbehavior. The stepparent reports back about any misbehavior and lets the spouse decide if and how to punish.

A case in point is Bruce Gray, who adored his stepdaughter Trisha. Trisha had lived with him since the age of 5. Trisha’s natural father was on the scene only rarely, so Bruce felt as if he were her real dad. But when Trisha was almost 12 years old, she turned fresh, nasty and oppositional. Bruce lost patience with her one day and got so angry that he took her over his knee and spanked her. Trish was outraged. “You’re not my real dad!” Bruce’s stepdaughter declared – words that pierced him to the core. Although the Grays remarriage was a success in every other way, Bruce’s relationship with this beloved stepdaughter never recovered. And he was mourning about this years later.

Of course an underlying dilemma is that the biological parent has often become lax and overly permissive and needs to firm up – while the stepparent needs to show more patience and compassion. Communicating with each other in a way that is respectful and caring is important. Here, a skill called soft-hard-soft can be very helpful. Since parents are hyper-sensitive when it comes to their ways of child-rearing, the stepparent begins with a soft, affectionate message: “You know how deeply I care about Trisha.” Then, like a sandwich filling comes the harder message: “But she is being so rude and disagreeable that I’m sometimes on the verge of losing my temper.” Finally, the communication ends up with another soft message: “ “You know how much I adore Trisha, so how can we handle this? When she tries to get my goat, what’s your advice about what I should do?

Soft-hard-soft is a skilled way of defusing situations which might otherwise land a stepparent in emotional quicksand, as had happened to Bruce Gray.

“By educating yourself about this vital issue and addressing the problem, you are halfway to solving it. ….

You can find more information about The Remarriage Blueprint at

About the Author

Maggie Scarf

Maggie Scarf is a fellow at the Fellow of Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University. Her latest book is The Remarriage Blueprint: How Remarried Couples And Their Families Succeed or Fail.

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