Reading article after article offering questionable advice to stepmothers, I have drawn my own conclusion that much drama is made for no good reason. One area in particular that seems very simple to me is discipline.
Writer after writer urges stepmoms to step back and defer completely to the children’s father when it comes to discipline, leaving all responsibility to him. One article bluntly stated, “It’s not your job.” I could not disagree more. The instant a young child is in my care, in any situation, I am responsible for his or her safety, and therefore, I need to know that he or she understands I am in a role of authority. We can hang out, we can laugh, we can blow bubbles at each other and chase each other with the hose while washing the car, but I still need to be an authoritative adult in their lives.
I have worked in many settings with young children, including schools, pre-schools, counseling groups, and summer programs. Funny, no one ever told me in these roles to just be the kids’ buddy and leave discipline to someone else. Why? Because I was responsible for th ose kids under my care, and if they saw me as a pushover or as someone with no authority to them, they were far more likely to endanger themselves or others. When I see a child embarking on what seems like a good idea to them (tightrope walking across the top of a bookshelf, preparing to catapult something injury-causing across the room, tap-dancing in the parking lot, you name it), I need to know when I say “Stop” that they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I mean it.
Kids are impulsive and curious; it is adults’ roles to encourage kids’ exploration of their world but keep them safe in the process. You can’t do that if the kids see you as timid, as a pushover, as someone who won’t follow through, as someone who is inconsistent, incapable of maintaining order or making decisions.
Luckily Gary and I share very similar attitudes about discipline and parenting, and we have functioned as a team since the beginning of our relationship. We both have the attitude that we can have fun with the kids, but their safety and well-being comes first, period. We are consistent, back each other up, and are clear with our boundaries and rules.
I don’t see this domain as much different than other parts of our relationship, in that we need to approach it with shared and clear expectations and work as a team in order for it all to come together and stay together. Certainly we don’t always agree, and it’s not unheard of for us to take a moment to talk about a different way to handle a situation that arose that day, or to hash out different feelings we have about something. But if my attitude was “Oh well, let him handle it” while I passively stand back and remove myself from a situation that is intimately entwined with my life, I don’t see how that can possibly translate into the kids’ minds that I am an active, caring, and strong adult in their lives and especially in our home, or that I am fully capable of taking care of them and keeping them safe.
No one is an expert on kids or parenting, and those who believe they are, are naive and more than a little pompous. I can only speak from my position in my life, in my relationship, with these kids. I know that consistency and firmness offers the kids a sense of stability, and we blessedly have had few, if any, real issues, discipline or otherwise. I attribute much of that to the fact that Gary and I work as a team, support each other, and most of all, demonstrate respect to each other and to the kids. We don’t grill the kids or pump them for information, and we don’t waste the short time we have together with negativity and bad-mouthing. We don’t treat them one way, then expect something else in return.
In a situation where chaos has dominated, knowing what to expect and what is expected of them can be immensely comforting to kids. Asking a stepmom to remove herself from helping to provide necessary structure is counterproductive.
In no way do I believe that a stepparent should be 100% responsible for rules or discipline, but I don’t believe any parent or caretaker should be. Parenting, no matter what role you bring to the scene, is a group effort and a partnership. Ideally all of us would be working together to ensure continuity across homes, as this would benefit the kids. For now, though, I can’t buy into the idea that any caretaker should shrug his or her shoulders and abdicate discipline to someone else, not if you are truly striving for a partnership and a solid, united relationship with both your partner and with the kids.