My parents divorced when I was five, and both remarried people quite unlike each other. My stepfather, big and tall and into sports, had gone to a Catholic college on a football scholarship. He 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 an overprotective mother who wouldn't 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.
My stepfather was a good person, honest, raising two children of his own. But if I had to have a stepfather, I would 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 Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family (Oxford University Press, 2014). “In general, there is no legal relationship between the stepparents and the kids, unless you grant them it to them in a formal legal document. Hopefully there’s a familial relationship, but it’s not a legal relationship.”
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 (though she wasn’t within her moral rights). I spoke to one 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.
There are steps you can take to create a legal relationship between your children and a new spouse, of course, and some schools have forms that let you to give certain rights to others, such as picking up your kids after school. But in general, the lack of a legal relationship highlights one critical fact about blended families: the relationship between the individuals involved is what matters. We want to do our best to create as positive a connection as possible.
Here are three steps for building strong bonds with a stepchild:
1. Focus on connection, not correction.
“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, you may not have a shared understanding about family life—what you do with mess, what counts as a ‘loud voice,’ what’s a large amount to pay for sneakers.
The research is very clear; until or unless a stepparent has established a trusting, caring relationship with step-kids, the non-biological parent should refrain from taking the disciplinarian role, says Papernow. The stepparent should give input to the parent, but the parent has the final say about his or her own children.
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.
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 it 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 safe one-on-one time.
Spending one-to-one time with a new stepchild, without the parent, is a great way to develop a bond. Try 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,” 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.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.