We Need a New Word for Stepparents
Stepparents have no legal rights; the emotional relationship is what matters.
Posted October 25, 2016
My parents divorced when I was five, and they both remarried people quite unlike each other. My stepfather was a good person, honest, raising two children of his own. He was big and tall and athletic. He’d gone to a Catholic college on a football scholarship and worked as an undercover law enforcement agent. He carried a gun to work. This was not a man who liked to sit around, discussing his feelings.
My own father, who I remained close to, was raised as an Orthodox Jew by a rabbi father and overprotective mother who refused to let him play football because it was too dangerous. My dad, like me, enjoys talking for hours about anything. He’ll debate a range of issues, then switch sides and keep discussing, preferably over lunch, straight through dinner.
Who was this man my mother had married? If I had to have a stepfather, I'd have chosen one who worked as a professor of 18th-century French poetry, or maybe art history.
Throughout my childhood, my stepfather and my two stepbrothers brought a huge amount of positive things into my life. My stepfather taught me to throw a softball, use a power drill, drive a car. He attended my gymnastics meets in high school, made pizza bagels for my sweet 16. But I wished there had been more conversation about how I was or was not actually related to these people living in my house.
I would have preferred a different word altogether for this helpful, energetic stranger my mother had fallen in love with. We had a good relationship, but the language didn’t feel right.
In fact, a stepparent isn’t a legal relationship at all. “Even my law students assume a stepparent has legal rights. But that’s not true,” says George Washington University law professor Naomi Cahn, co-author of the legal textbook Contemporary Family Law (West, 2016) and of Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family (Oxford University Press, 2014). “In some states, stepparents are entitled to make medical decisions when the legal parents are unavailable, and parents can legally delegate authority to them. But in general, there is no legal relationship, unless you grant them it to them in a formal legal document."
In most states, a stepparent isn’t even obligated to support a stepchild living in his home. “A stepparent is legally allowed to say, ‘I’m going to send our bio kid to a private school and the other one to the worst public school in the country.’ It wouldn’t be good for the relationship, but it’s legal,” says Cahn.
Cinderella’s evil step-mother, it turns out, was within her legal rights (or would be today), to buy her own daughters beautiful ball gowns and dress her stepdaughter in rags. But she wasn’t within her moral rights, and her behavior created huge strain on her blended family.
I spoke to a 30-something adult child of divorce who said his stepmother used generic detergent when she washed his clothes and those of his sisters, but switched to a pricier brand for her own kids. There wasn’t anything legally amiss, but this behavior made him feel unloved and undervalued.
All of this brings up one issue I've thought about again and again in blended families: What is good for the actual relationship?
We want to do our best to create as positive a connection as possible. Here are three places to start:
1. Focus on connection, not discipline.
“My advice to stepparents is to concentrate on connection before correction,” says Patricia Papernow, author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't (Routledge, 2013). “It’s not a relationship that kids chose. The parent chose it. And while the new relationship is a gift to the parent, it is often experienced as a loss by kids because the parent might turn away toward a new partner, and the new partner often wants things kids don’t want.
Kids are wired to love their parents. They’re not wired to love their stepparents. Also, they don’t have shared understandings about family style—what we do with mess, what counts as a ‘loud voice,’ what’s a large amount to pay for sneakers. In Japan, stepparents do have a legal relationship. They’re expected to come in and be parents, and it’s disastrous.
The research is very clear; until or unless a stepparent has established a trusting, caring relationship with stepkids, the non-biological parent should refrain from taking the disciplinarian role. The stepparent should give input to the parent, but the parent has the final say about his or her own children.
2. Show interest in their interests.
“If the kid is into computer games, find out how they work and what the kid likes about them,” says Papernow. “If the child plays a sport, ask about the game. If questions don’t work, try statements: ‘I heard that was a tough game and you hung in. Good going.’ Or, ‘I hear you did well on your math test. Good going. I heard that math test was the pits. So sorry. Let me know if I can help.’”
3. Aim for one-on-one time.
Spending one-to-one time with a new stepchild, without the parent, is a great way to develop a bond. Papernow suggests easy, low-key things you can do together, even at the house, where there’s some third thing to focus on such as learning to throw and catch a ball, or building a box garden (something my own stepdad did recently with my son). “The point is for the parent to make some space. As soon as the parent is in the picture, the powerful relationship is between parent and child, and the stepparent can be eclipsed.”
When you do set boundaries, focus on authoritative, not authoritarian parenting. “Over time, if the stepparent/stepchild relationship becomes caring and trusting, stepparents can move slowly into an authoritative parenting style,” says Papernow.
But authoritarian parenting by stepparents is toxic at any stage in the relationship.
Authoritarian parenting is hard, cold and firm. Authoritative means establishing boundaries and enforcing rules in a warm, caring, responsive, and empathic way.
In some families, the stepparent never really takes on a disciplinarian role. This can work too, if it works for the parents. “There are many perfectly healthy thriving stepfamilies where stepparents do not have a disciplinary role. Especially if kids were older, or particularly vulnerable,” says Papernow.
Ideally, a new partner provides real support for the parent, and becomes another responsible, trusted adult in the children’s lives. All kids benefit from more positive adult interaction rather than less. This included extended family, teachers and coaches and clergy, parents’ friends, and a parent’s partner who genuinely cares about the wellbeing of everyone in the family.
Read more about blended families on my new "divorce wellness" website, Splitopia.com. You can also order Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well.