Discipline and the Stepmom

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.

About TheSmirkingCat

I am endlessly trying to make sense of a world that has completely and unapologetically lost its mind.
This entry was posted in discipline, kids, parenting, stepmothers. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Discipline and the Stepmom

  1. FeministGal says:

    really good post – you may be interested in this site that i came across a few days ago: freerangekids.wordpress.com/

  2. Crys says:

    I was conflicted with this also and am really glad that you posted about this. I too agree that when a child is in my care and living with me that discipline cannot and should not be held entirely with their father. It kind of goes along with the fact that I’m the other authoritative parent in this household. My fiance and I have sat down on numerous occasions to discuss how to discipline and even on occasion how we should discipline in specific instances.

  3. completley agree… 100%… while jake is ever with me… i treat him as i would if he were positvely mine and i had birthed him, no exceptions whatsoever.

  4. Just Me :) says:

    You said it perfectly.

    But you know what…I think just about any parent (bio or otherwise) or “professional” would say that you should absolutely tell a child “don’t run out into the street” or don’t run with a knife in your hand” because you should OF COURSE protect them…but you should NEVER tell them “don’t back talk” “don’t speak that way” Why…because that would be insinuating that <>you<> are contributing to the type of person that child is to become. They would expect you to keep them safe but how dare you think you have the right to mold them into a good person.

    It’s really quite ridicules.

  5. In our world it would be impossible to expect Michael to take on the full responsibility of the disciplining the children. From the get-go we have been a team as well. A long time ago Michael sat the kids down and told them: If Katie tells you to do something it’s as if I’M TELLING YOU TO DO SOMETHING.” They are obedient kids…mostly…and they fully understand…if Katie says, “No” then Dad is saying “No.” And vice-versa. But during the first few months I was married to Michael it was a different story.When it came to discipline I was worried about overstepping my bounds simply because of the many articles you are referring to. I was scared to death…my form of discipline was not handling the problem. So Michael told me: you have to do what I do. And soon thereafter I followed suit. And from that moment on my son has totally understood No means NO! And if he breaks the rules: his punishment from me would be exactly the same punishment as Michael would give him. The same goes for my daughter.
    I could go ON and On and OONNNN regarding this topic, but I won’t. I’m using my brother’s computer at his house and his keyboard stinks!

  6. I was on a forum the other day where someone referenced “A Dog-Trainer’s Guide to Step-Parenting.” I think the general concept of the book was to approach step-parenting kind of like you would approach dog-sitting. If a puppy was in your care, even if it wasn’t your puppy, you still wouldn’t let it tear up your drapes or pee on the floor, right? Kids are the same way. I just don’t see how people don’t GET that, you know?

  7. furiousBall says:

    ultimately this is an issue for the parents to decide, if they don’t want someone to discipline the child, it’s up to them to do it all

  8. MeanStepmom says:

    I’m conflicted with this issue. I have two stepkids – one which I can discipline and one I cannot; one who accepts me as “Mom” and one who curses the day I became part of his family. I don’t have the right answer to this question, but I do think the age of the child is a contributing factor. Just my $.02

  9. Flutterby says:

    Seems like it’s always the ones who don’t have kids, biological or otherwise, that think they know the most. They’re so funny.

  10. Smirking Cat says:

    I’d have to say, if a parent decides he or she does not want someone else to take any responsibility for discipline, then they cannot expect that person to do everything else but that. “Hey, pay for stuff and cook and take care of my kids, but don’t correct them” is a situation a lot of step-parents seem to deal with, and I think it is a disservice to both the step-parent as well as the kids (and a recipe for resentment and a failed relationship).

    To me, you cannot pick and choose when you take responsibility, when it comes to kids.

  11. Syn says:

    Great post. I hope you don’t mind but I put a link to it on my blog (http://www.stepfamilysanctuary.com/2009/05/disciplining-stepchildren.html). If you do, let me know and I’ll remove it.

  12. Smirking Cat says:

    Syn, I don’t mind at all! Thank you for letting me know.

  13. I whole-heartedly agree. And your comment above, “then they cannot expect that person to do everything else but that.” is bang on. I am not a bank account, chauffeur, cook, laundress and maid. I am a parent and it is my bloody home too.

    I don’t think age is a contributing factor. I would stop a two year old from putting a knife in an electrical socket; I would stop a 13 year old from lighting her arm on fire because she thought it was cool. If they end up hating me for it, so be it. At least I will know I have done the right thing for the children that I love, biologically tied to me or not.

  14. I am so glad you posted this. It’s such a sensitive topic and a tough spot (stepmom) to be in. Thanks for putting it out there.

  15. I’m with you all the way. I know that every household is different…In my house, my husband came along when my sons were very young and biodad has never been around. He stepped into that role and we never really clashed about it. He and I are a team. I can’t imagine it being any other way. If one of the kids had ever challenged that, together, we would have set them straight.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Ok, I may seem like the evil one here, but we spank. I don't mean we hit as hard as we can on her butt to cause welts, I mean we pop her on her tush once. Well, by we, I mean he does, now. I was told in the beginning of our relationship to treat the step daughter like my own and to do as I would think he would do. Well, tonight I was told that I am no longer allowed to pop her butt. That I am to wait for him to get home to do it. The issue here is that his job requires him to be gone anywhere from one day to a week and a half. His daughter still does not see me as an authority figure. I have done the time out thing, the taking away of movie time, the standing in the corner, but when I give her a tap on her rump, she stops and listens. And no, I don't haul off and whack her. so, what do I do now? Do I continue to cook and clean and make sure she gets to school on a daily basis on time and watch her while he is gone just to have her tell me no she won't do this or that I need to bring her her food. She is four. I am at a loss.

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