A short lesson book I wrote for the stepfamily class I teach, and for fundraising.
| You’re NOT My Dad!!!
by Bobby Collins, CDM
Stepdad and Founder of STEP-Carefully! for Stepparents!
You’re Not My Dad! is fully protected under U. S. Copyright Laws © 1999, 2001 Bobby Collins, all rights reserved.
Please do not reproduce this work in any manner without the express written permission of the owner. Additional copies are available at our web site: www.stepcarefully.com.
It is our wish that all families find the peace offered by Jesus Christ, and it is to this end that we present these ideas.
We also offer assistance in establishing local stepfamily support groups, working with churches or groups ... just ask!
You’re NOT My Dad!
Stepkids know how to push our buttons and pull our strings, don’t they? They seem to have an almost magical gift for finding the soft spot in our armor and then they delight in repeatedly poking us there to see how long it takes to make us blow. All right, our own kids do the same thing from time to time — but they learn pretty fast that continuous poking can lead to personal injury! Stepkids ... not so much.
This lesson book is designed for those of you who want to be the best stepdad possible, but who may be experiencing the effects of PTSB (Poked ‘Til Something Blows) disorder. You want to prove to your wife that you can be a positive force for her kids, but you also find yourself wanting to “poke” them back. Hard! Been there; felt that. I’m a stepdad, myself, of a young lady who knows exactly how to get my dander up — ‘way up!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love her ... well, I love her mom ... a lot. And her mom loves her a lot. Therefore, I must step carefully in dealing with her. Hence the name of the organization my wife and I formed in 1996 to learn how to survive as a stepfamily. STEP-Carefully! has grown to fairly considerable size. As of 2007, we have around 5,000 member families located on every continent, and from widely diverse cultures.
But wherever these stepfamilies live, they all have similar challenges: stepkids, ex-spouses, and couple relationships complicated by their pasts. In working with thousands of stepfamilies, I have learned a great deal about what makes them go and what makes them break down. Stepdads aren’t necessarily the “weak link,” but we sure do seem to hold our own in the deer-caught-in-the-headlights department!
Men are basically smart folks when put in the right environments. Give us a physical or tactical challenge and we’ll grit our teeth, flex our muscles, and dive into the task. Problem is, many stepfamily challenges do not lend themselves to the gritting and flexing type approach. So there we stand, all pumped to fight a battle ... in a home situation that needs calming down, rather than heating up. So, instead of taking care of business, we seem to just make things worse.
So we fall back on one of two solutions: get louder or leave it to the wife. Great.
Waffles and Spaghetti
Machismo aside, we all know down deep that women are in charge. You don’t agree? Remember when you were a teenager, thinking about asking a girl out for a date? Granted, the girls were nervous about dates, too, but, you knew that they were in control. They held the power of victory or humiliation over you.
In fact, we have learned this from birth. We are ordered around by our mothers, our baby sitters, our older sisters, our kindergarten and school teachers, and our girlfriends. Then, after rearing us to follow instructions from just about any female who spoke up, society says that we are supposed to step into the leadership role in our homes.
Stepdads that I talk to, by a great majority, exhibit fear and trepidation in dealing with new wives and new stepkids (especially stepdaughters!). We are so afraid of failing to provide the essentials — security, happiness, a healthy home — for these new charges, that often the result is hesitation to do anything. And in our hesitation to make the wrong move, stepdads usually commit one of two crimes: we either choke back our instinctive actions, or we charge ahead too exuberantly, smashing things in our enthusiasm.
A couple of episodes of that, and we are ready to sit back and just wait for the kids to grow up and get out of our homes. Or we justify running away from them with phrases like, “I don’t need this aggravation,” or “I’ve got to take care of myself,” or even “I’ll leave before I do any real damage to them.” What a stepfamily needs is a strong man to act as an anchor in all the storms they go through. They need a man with strong convictions.
Men and women are different. Might as well admit it. We are basically “wired” differently. Men have different triggers, different goals, different motivators. Bill and Pam Farrell wrote an excellent how-to book called “Men Are Like Waffles and Women Are Like Spaghetti,” in which they explain that most men look at things one at a time (like little boxes, or segments of a waffle), while women tend to multi-task many separate issues all together (each touching on the other, like strands of spaghetti on a plate). This works fine until the two partners try to interpret each others’ motivation. Guys can’t understand what girls are going on and on and on about as they unravel their strands of intermingled issues, and gals can’t understand why their guys get so stuck on one issue at a time.
Where this “wiring” difference comes into play in stepfamily dynamics is that men want to apply to a stepfamily issue the same tactics that worked on their biological family. And those are two very different animals. Trying to handle your stepfamily the same way you handle your own kids is like trying to scratch someone else’s itch — you seem to get all around the place, but you can never hit it just right, you’re either too hard or not hard enough, and everyone gets frustrated.
And, in many ways, acting as substitute dad for some other man’s children runs against the nature of most men. The problem for most stepdads is that they are taking on a responsibility to deal with situations in what most men consider enemy territory. After all, aren’t these the kids of the man who was married to your wife before? They carry his genes, his blood, his family ties, maybe his scars or programming. Yet you’re supposed to ignore that and love them as your own?
Now, this is the guy who ruined your wife’s life just a few months or years ago by his actions and inconsideration. She’s told you herself that he was a jerk, probably abusive, and definitely stupid! And here stand his kids yelling at you with belligerence and disrespect! How is a guy supposed to handle that? Get tough with them and possibly do more damage? Or yield to their mom, your wife, and abdicate your authority (and possibly do even more damage)?
If you’ve ever met your stepkids’ dad, you are probably struck at times by how much like him his kids look, sound, and act. They have his inflections in their voice. They look like him and, you have to suspect when they’re being rude or disobedient, they act just like him, too.
You know that you’re supposed to be the leader, the “man of the house.” But it seems like whenever you try to take control and tell your stepkids to straighten up, they either ignore you or attack and make matters worse. You’ve heard that the experts say to let the biological parent give the orders. Well, that’s just great! So now you aren’t even allowed to be boss in your own house, you have to run to mom and tattle.
What’s a guy to do?!
It’s a guy thing
From childhood, society has taught us that a man doesn’t quit, a man doesn’t cry, a man toughs it out, a man finishes what he starts, a man is a gentleman to a lady, a man takes care of children. It’s a guy thing. So, we find ourselves in a quandary. We are in a home where we are not treated like men, and, at the same time, called upon to act as men. It goes against every instinct you have in your bones to care for these kids. It calls for extra effort. It calls for you to love your enemy. To bless those who curse you. To be tougher than you’ve probably ever had to be before.
But remember — and you’ll need this many times — men who go beyond what they’re expected to do, who go “above and beyond the call of duty,” against seemingly impossible odds, when circumstances make it extremely hard to do so, are called “heroes.” No soldier ever won honors or a medal for just getting by in peacetime service. Hiding in the barracks while others fight the hard fight, or running from the enemy, isn’t admirable — it’s cowardly.
It’s the warriors who, despite their fear and self-doubt, advance toward a larger force or a more cunning opponent, who are admired. The soldier who takes the extra step and make the extra effort and save his comrades in battle; that’s who gets the parades.
Now, there’s probably no parade in your future, but if you can be tougher than your stepkids, their acceptance, and maybe even their love some day, will feel better than any ticker tape parade down 5th Avenue. If you can stand when all others around you are encouraging you to run away, they will notice. They’ll test you. They’ll challenge you. But if you keep going, they will notice.
Besides, this isn’t just a whim or something to try between football seasons. We have an obligation to stick to this task. In fact, we have three commitments to fulfill:
1) A vow to God
When you stood before a minister or a J.P. or a judge, you swore a sacred vow before God and witnesses to stick with it “til death do you part.” Your friends and your family all witnessed you commit yourself to take care of this family. They’re watching you to see, not so much how well you perform, but if you survive. And some are even betting against you.
And you swore before God to never give up. The Creator of Heaven and Earth and the host of Heaven were witnesses to your solemn oath. And you will be judged for how you follow through with that vow. Whether or not you believe that you will stand before a Judgment Seat some day, believe this: you will bear the judgment of failing to keep your vow throughout the rest of this life.
If you walk away from this family of yours, you will be left with only two options. You can admit that you bailed on your responsibilities, that you gave up, that you were too weak to stay in there. Or you can blame a woman and some kids for being too “messed up” for you to handle. Toss it off on them.
What that says about every stepdad who cuts and runs is that he was whipped. Go down to the local pub or gathering place and whine with the others. Tell them — and yourself — that a woman and her kids were just tougher than you. Tell everyone that woman and those children were a bunch of meanies to you and they scared you off. That the junk they threw at you was more than you could stand up to. That you just didn’t have enough guts to love them no matter what they did. That you failed, and then blame their problems for your failure. And maybe your mommy will take you back.
Either way, you’ll have to live with the truth all your life.
There’s just no way to win if you quit.
2) A vow to your wife
You got yourself into this. If it wasn’t exactly your idea to get married, you at least went along, right? in most cases, even today, it’s the guy who makes the decision to either pop the question or to go along. Whatever kind of wedding ceremony you had, I’ll bet there were no shotguns held by your bride’s family.
You persuaded the woman with whom you fell in love that you were trustworthy. Remember your courtship? Remember how you charmed her and won her heart? You put in long hard hours of thought and effort to help her see what a great guy you were, and what a super companion you would make. You swore to her that you would never quit, that you would help her “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer.” You were successful in the most important contest of your life. You won her trust.
Now, as a man who will have to look at himself in the mirror every morning from here on out, can you really lie to this woman whom you convinced to marry you? Granted, you had no idea how hard it was going to actually be. Granted, your then-girlfriend hid her minor imperfections (ha!!) from you. And granted, the kids were easier to get along with (or easier to ignore). If you’d had a clue, you might not have shown up at the altar.
But you still signed the contract. You proposed. You offered. You gave your word. Now you have no choice but to stick to it. The rest of your life and the lives of this family you’ve joined will be based on how you proceed. Follow through and you’re a hero; give up and you’re a quitter. Period.
3) A vow to the children
First, let’s talk about your own kids. If you have kids, they watched as you took those vows and began a new life. They probably weren’t too excited about losing their last hope for Mom and Dad getting back together, and they are most likely a little bit afraid they’ll lose you to the new family. But regardless of their fears, they are also looking to you to teach them ... to demonstrate to them ... how you and they should handle vows and challenges.
You are, to your own kids, the prime example for how they will live their lives. Studies continually show that children are persuaded more by their parents’ actions than by all other sources of influence, including TV, movies, books, or their peers. Oh, they may never admit it, but they are basing their character and their path in life on how dear ol’ Dad does it.
Will he stick to it? Will he step up to the plate and stare down the pitcher? Will he be the man they hope he is, so they can be the men and women they hope to be? They will either learn positive lessons from you, or they will learn from watching you how they do not want to be when they grow up.
No pressure there!
If they see you crumble (or blow up) and give in, what does that tell them about their own chances of meeting challenges in their lives? Kids understand about genetics more than you think. They know they are built from your stuff. They’ve been told all their lives, “You look just like your Daddy!,” “You sound just like him when you laugh!,” “Boy, he’s a chip off the old block!” How do you want to teach your children to prepare for and handle the tough times?
And then there’s the stepkids. Regardless of how they act toward you, you also made a vow to her children to care for them like they were your own. Maybe you didn’t say it out loud as part of the ceremony, but that’s what is implied when a man marries a woman with children — that he will take her kids and help her to raise them. You knew she had kids. She didn’t keep them secret from you.
You may not have known what kids were really like. I didn’t. When my wife, and I married, my experience with kids was limited to avoiding them at the mall. I knew that her daughter, was a cute, sweet, quiet 13-year-old who was respectful to her mom and either shy or bright and cheery around me.
I even asked her permission to marry her mom. She said she thought it would make her mom very happy. But just a few weeks into the marriage, her true teenage nature came out in full force. She taught me all about the power of teenaged girls.
Teenaged stepdaughters are especially scary to most stepdads. There is the same trepidation with bio-daughters, but steps add unfamiliarity to the mystery.
I remember a commercial for some long distance phone service. The kindly dad walks into the room to find an irate teenage girl ripping pages out of a thick book, and feeding them one by one into a fax machine. He asks nervously, “What's that?” Through gritted teeth she growls, “A book on relationships!” Dad gulps and says, “For Rodney in Maine?” She nods. Dad mutters, “Couldn’t you just buy him the book?” and wanders away, hands in his pockets.
I used to think, what a wimp! Take the book away from her and hang up the phone! Then I got a teenager of my own. If I walked in on that same scenario with her, I’d get out as soon as possible and just pray she wasn't faxing the whole book.
They have this power of fury. And they burn easily. The wise stepdad avoids flames whenever possible, perhaps talking to her about better ways of handling a relationship crisis in the future, after she has cooled off. Or just leaving it to mom to deal with.
Those same blazing stepkids are looking to see how you will take the challenge. Whether you will stand strong or run from them. And believe it or not, in every case that I’ve seen come to a successful conclusion, the kids were secretly hoping that you would win. The stepkids were hoping that the stepdad would stand up to them and love them. That their mom would have a committed partner for life.
If you think about it, it’s pretty easy to understand why they taunt you to leave, while secretly hoping you won’t. These kids may have recently seen another man — their flesh and blood, “real” dad, the one they looked up to — walk out on them. When he divorced their mom and them, he was saying in essence that they weren’t important enough for him to stay around for, and to keep being a dad to them.
He demonstrated through words and actions that when a man gets the itch, or when a wife becomes a challenge, or when life becomes boring, he runs away. Your stepkids have been taught that their value to their father was less than his desire for an easier life. They’ve been shown that, in their life later on, when the going gets tough ... women and children last. They’ve learned that that’s the way a man handles it.
And now they have you.
You are now, like it or not, your stepkids’ primary example of everything a man is supposed to be. (No pressure there!) This is your chance of a lifetime to be a hero, the representation of a real man - responsible, honest, dedicated, etc. How you live out your life in front of your stepkids will forever be part of their idea of what a man acts like in everyday circumstances.
You must show them how a real man takes a challenge. How an honest man lives up to his responsibilities. How a decent man acts toward his wife and family. How a gentleman acts toward his teenaged stepdaughter. How a Godly man teaches Godly principles to his stepson. Even how a Christian man should handle disasters and challenges from within his own family.
How you respond will shape their attitudes of men for all their lives. The boys will learn from you how they should treat girls now, women later on, and their children when they have a family. Whether you intend to or not, you are teaching them in every word you speak and in every action you take. Your tone of voice, your body language, your choice of words or phrases when you get mad — all are noticed, registered, and filed away into memories. You may have known what you really meant at the time yesterday — they only know what you actually let out.
Look back over the last few days with your stepkids. Now imagine them saying and doing the exact same things the exact same way you did in their presence. Is it a good picture? Or do you cringe to realize how you are teaching them to act and to react?
It takes a man
Every child needs a man’s guidance while they’re growing up. Don’t get me wrong, nothing compares to a mother’s love. But women are women. They can not teach kids about being a man. Boys need to be shown how to act when they grow up and have families depending on them. And girls need to be shown what sort of a man to look for when they begin building their future, as well as what to expect from a husband. It takes a man to teach a kid about a man. And now, by your own vows, you are that man.
What, specifically, do they need from you? I mean, c’mon! They’ve got their own dad - isn’t that his job? And you’ve got your own kids to think about, right? Your own kids give you even more reason to be a good teacher / coach / mentor / example.
Well, you can start by teaching them about the basics of responsibility. Providing for your family — money, yes, but more importantly security. Money is not security. Just look at all the wealthy families who break up every week. Security means knowing that daddies don’t go away. Security means knowing that they can sleep safely in their home without being afraid of where they’ll be sleeping next week. Security that they can trust their precious mother with a man. Security that, no matter how bad they are, they are worth the effort of love and discipline.
Stepdads have a different perspective on the kids than moms. Mom has changed these kids’ dirty diapers, she has wiped their noses and spanked their bottoms. She has held their hands while crossing streets and listened to their little kid stories. She has watched them learn to walk and then run, while mending their hurts and encouraging them to keep going. To mom, they will always remain, at least in a way, little children.
A stepdad comes into the rearing process without having seen all the progression that has gone before. When I got Jennifer at 13 years old, I saw a teenager about to become an adult. Her mom still saw a little girl. Her mom still thought of Jennifer in child terms, so, when Jennifer would still act out like a little girl or pout or throw tantrums, mom didn’t notice. Being fresh to the family, I saw inappropriate behavior.
Moms may lose their patience with their children more easily. After all, this is the one-thousandth time she’s told them clean up their messes. Stepdads don’t have the history with the kids. They should have a little more tolerance, and a different perspective. On the other hand, Mom may see that her kids are acting like aliens she’s never met. A stepdad might just see a normal teenager acting like all the other teenagers. Mom might wonder where her little boy has gone; a stepdad can see that the boy is just “at that age.”
Also, your stepkids have more personalized needs from you. Needs that are defined by the wounds they have received from life. If they were abused, they need to learn about decency. If they were abandoned, they need to learn about honor. If they were betrayed, they need to learn about faith. You have the unique opportunity to correct some of the wrong lessons they have learned, and to teach them the right lessons.
Stepdaughters’ special needs
Girls have different needs from a stepdad than boys do.
A stepdaughter needs a good man to teach her the secrets of how the minds of boys her own age think. In her innocence, she probably still sees guys as little boys, the friends she played with as a child. But you and I know that, as those guys grow up, their thoughts, ideals, and morals change rapidly. It’s your job, as a man in her life, to help her understand those changes — tactfully.
Teach her that sometimes for example, when she says something that she has always said to the boys, which seems pretty innocent to her, those boys can twist what she said around to mean something entirely different. “Kiss my hiney!” is, first of all, not really very good for a young lady to say, but can also be taken as more of an invitation to a teenaged boy than a brush off!
Boys think differently than girls. Your stepdaughter may have brothers whom she sees act differently from her, but she probably assumes that other boys aren’t as crude as her brothers. You have to help her see how a boy’s mind works. This may take some effort on your part. It’s been quite a few years since you were your stepdaughter’s age. But you can do it, after don’t most men still think and act like boys?
Your job is to clue her in on a boy’s reaction to how she stands, how she sits, the way she talks. Some girls don’t realize that the way they get out of a car may give boys much more of a show than she intends. When a girl progresses from little girl to young lady, some things she used to be able to do — sitting cross-legged in a dress, crossing her legs like a guy, scratching, bending over, etc. — have to be done differently (or given up altogether).
Mom may not have told her, or Mom may not think of her baby as old enough to need the instruction. Remember, to mom she may still be a little girl. A stepdad, as I said before, has a fresh perspective on the situation.
Stepdaughters and Dating
When Jennifer reached 16, and dating was looming on the horizon, her mother suggested that I might take her out on a few dates. After discussing it with her mom, I asked Jennifer if she’d like to go out on a grown up date for pizza and a movie. She was a little unsure, but she went along, perhaps out of curiosity. On our date night, I dressed up and left the house alone, first. Then I drove around the block and back to the house, and picked up Jennifer at the front door. I opened the car door for her, and complimented her on how nice she looked. She was confused, but she went along.
I let her choose the radio station in the car, and surprised her again when I sang along to the (shudder) music she chose. When we arrived at the pizza place, I opened her door and helped her out. I held her chair as she sat down, and asked her what she wanted to eat. When the waitress came, I placed the order for us. I served the pizza and made sure Jennifer’s glass was always full.
While we ate, I asked her what she’d like to do afterwards. We discussed the different options, which led to talking about what sort of things she liked. I never acted like a parent, instructing or leading her to say what I thought she should want or think. I was her date. I was interested in what she had to say. She was impressed and flattered. We had a wonderful visit.
We decided to go play pool, so I bought her popcorn and a coke and escorted her to our table. During the games, we laughed together and had fun. Then I held the car door for her and we laughed more on the way home. I walked her to the front door, gave her a hug and thanked her for a wonderful evening, then left. I drove around the block and came home. By the time I walked in the back door, she’d told her mom all about her “date.”
Two things were accomplished that night. First, Jennifer and I grew much closer. Talking to her as her date, rather than as her stepdad, I learned a lot about her personality that I hadn’t seen before. I saw her intelligence and her quick wit. I learned about many things she likes and more that she dislikes. We started actually becoming friends — and we’ve never stopped the process.
The second thing that was accomplished was that Jennifer now had an ideal for a date. When she got to go on real dates, she knew how the boy was supposed to act. And if he didn’t, she let him know it! She trained several boys about opening doors and ordering for both of them. I had shown her how she should expect to be treated by a boyfriend. She wouldn’t have to assume that whatever they did was alright.
To this day, she still insists that her dates treat her like a lady. And we still occasionally go out for lunch “dates.”
Stepdaughters and Marriage
You also have a responsibility to teach your stepdaughter what to expect in a husband. She will watch how you treat her mother and she will take careful notes. Unfortunately, she’s probably already seen many examples of how a husband shouldn’t treat his wife, courtesy of her mother’s and father’s divorce. Your job is to correct that by the way you act toward your wife in front of her.
Many times, stepdaughters have very low self-esteem because of having been essentially abandoned by their fathers. This often leads them to accept — or to even expect — poor treatment from their boyfriends and husband. Demonstrate for your stepdaughter how she should expect her husband to treat her by the way you treat her mother. If you show affection and respect to your wife in front of your stepdaughter, you can raise her level of hope for her own future. If she can see that her mother is deserving of kindness, she can begin to consider it for herself.
One example a stepchild needs to see is a husband who treats his wife with respect and manners. A real man isn’t rude to his wife. Only a weak jerk has to make himself feel bigger by pressing his wife down. Show your stepkids how precious your wife is to you — especially when it may be hardest. When your wife gets angry with you over a small matter, even when you feel that you are in the right and she’s way off base, teach your stepkids that a real man honors his wife.
Your stepson has a lot to learn from you, too. You get to teach him how to be a good man. Whether you and your wife have full time custody of him or if you just see him on weekends, you can make a difference in his life.
As a stepdad, you can go beyond the regular things a man teaches his son, such as the value of sports, having a competitive edge, or how to spit without getting wet. Your stepson has probably seen his mom degraded and cut down in arguments with his dad far too many times. He has seen her cry far too many nights. And he has learned lessons from both of his parents about hurting those that you once loved.
Boys follow their fathers’ leads very closely. When a dad teaches his son how to disrespect his wife, it is a lesson that shapes the boy’s life in many ways. Some boys follow dad’s lead and become rude to their mother, trying to be a “man” like dad. This can lead to bullying, spousal abuse, and eventually abuse of his own children — who will be, by the way, your grandchildren.
Other boys can go the other way, becoming overly defensive of their mothers. In these cases, these young men lose much of their objectivity. Rather than see mom as a parent to be learned from and obeyed, they begin to take on a protector’s role, seeing their mother as a “weaker vessel” whom they need to guard. You can find yourself facing a boy who steps in to protect mother from all real and many imagined threats — like, for instance, you.
You now have the opportunity to demonstrate how precious and valuable a wife is to a man, and how he should treat her. You can show him how to act like a gentleman. Although you weren’t given the right, at birth, to be this boy’s father, you have been allowed the privilege, by marriage to his mother, to be his mentor. And, although you’ll never take the place of his father (and you’d better not try!) you do get the rare chance to have a part in shaping his mind and heart and life.
He may just appear to be another kid — either brash and loud, or sullen and moody — but he is now your project. You get to take part in fashioning him into the man he will be. You can’t claim parentage, but you can feel proud of what he becomes. And you will make life much easier on your wife and yourself if you can be his friend, too.
Every boy needs to be told, as well as shown, how to act around girls. As your stepson moves from little boy into adolescence, you can help him understand that his relationships with girls are changing. He can no longer behave like a wild idiot to get their attention. He should stop treating them like just one of the guys. You can tell him this, but you’ll get much farther if you show it to him.
Just as important as it is for a stepdad to demonstrate to his stepdaughter what to expect from a boy on a date, you can show your stepson how a gentleman (yes, they do still exist at his age!) is supposed to treat a girl when he takes her out. Make sure he knows this before some girl’s father — or the police — explain it to him.
Some dads actually take their sons out on dates, too. Think of it as a rite of passage, sort of a tribal thing.
Rather than just take the boy out and talk to him about what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, demonstrate the proper process by taking him along on a date with your wife. Tell him to make believe he’s invisible, but to watch everything. (There will be a test at the end!) Your wife should enjoy this exercise, too — she gets a night out on a special date.
As you go through the steps of picking your wife up at the door, holding her chair, ordering for her, complimenting her, pass along verbal notes for your invisible observer. Clue him in on why you are doing the things you are. But make sure your date is the focus of your attention.
After the official date is over, sit down with the boy and quiz him about some of the procedures. Stress to him that dating a girl is a sacred honor. That even in a day of Madonna and Paris, a girl’s virtue is to be guarded and valued at all times. That she is God’s precious gift to him, and that he’d better treat her like one if he knows what’s good for him!
Your goal is more than to just ensure that he doesn’t make a fool of himself on his first dates. You have here a wonderful chance to shape a future gentleman who will build a better home and family than his parents did. If you can train him to honor and prize a girl’s company on his early dates, there’s a hope that doing so will become habit throughout life. Your wife, girls your stepson dates, your future daughter-in-law, and your grandchildren will either thank you or suffer for what you teach this boy in your care.
Important Stepdad Rules
Beyond the “tricks of the trade” that we’ve been looking at, there are some basic things you need to remember in building this new family of your. I go over these and other rules in much more detail in our lesson book, “12 Steps to Improving Your Stepfamily’s Communication.” But for now, these are the most important for you.
1) Never argue in front of the kids.
This is the most important thing you can learn. First of all, as we’ve already seen, those kids have had far too much fighting in their lives already, if their parents went through a divorce. They have at least partially pinned their hopes on you to bring some peace and stability into their broken lives. You have a serious responsibility to help them recover from the damage of their past. Fighting with their mom won’t do that. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. It will begin the process of making them take sides. And they will always — always — side with their mother. You don’t want the aggravation of creating opponents in your own home.
Also, when you argue with your wife in front of her kids, you actually belittle them because they are part of their mom. Especially after the trauma of divorce, these kids identify with their mother. They feel that connection even more.
There is also a factor of division to consider. Most children of divorce hold onto the hope that their parents will get back together. It is a basic fact of life that children want their biological parents to live together and to raise them as an intact family. Divorce cripples that possibility, but to most children of divorce, it does not kill the hope. A child who has never seen his parents in a loving marriage will still hold onto a dream of seeing it someday.
You are a major obstacle to that dream coming true. When they see the two of you in disagreement, they see an opening. And slowly, maybe even without meaning to, they will try to pry that opening wider. Children of divorce have had many lessons in division and warfare. If you give them opportunities, they will exercise those skills on you. And again, you have enemies where you really don’t want them.
Never argue in front of the kids. When you and your wife disagree about rules or some other matter, excuse yourselves to the bedroom and settle it quietly. Come to an agreement that you can present to the kids. If one of you has to retract what was said earlier, do it, apologize, and move on. Never argue in front of the kids.
2) Never talk to your stepkids about their mom
When you go behind your wife’s back to her children, you are only fooling yourself that you are swaying them. Your stepchildren will always side with them mother — maybe while they are acting like they are siding with you. This basic biological fact should be obvious to everyone, but for some reason most stepdads don’t get it. Time and time again, I have seen stepdads who have tried to get their stepchildren on their team. It never works. Maybe they do it to try to become friends with the kids, or maybe in an attempt to gain the sympathy of their stepkids. But it will always backfire.
In a contest for these kids’ loyalty, the best you can hope for is to sound weak and whiny. Not exactly the best tactic for gaining their respect. More likely, though, the kids will resent you for attacking their mom. Remember the loyalty factor. What’s more, they will probably tell her what you’ve been up to. Then you get to deal with that.
3) Never put down your stepkids’ dad.
Even though you probably have ample ammunition, based on what your wife has told you in confidence, resist the temptation to cut him down. Yes, he was a jerk; yes, he hurt their mom; yes, he hurt them, too. But the fact is that he is and always will be their daddy.
As strong as their loyalty is toward their mom, it will be even stronger for their dad where you are concerned. Remember their dreams of mom and dad reuniting? When you belittle their father, you make that dream a goal. When you attack the man they love more than he probably deserves, you set yourself up to be their enemy.
And it’s true, he was possibly a bad example of a father during the divorce. But even if he made a fool of himself, he is still their blood dad. As much anger as they may hold against him themselves, you can not attack him and come out a winner. They may badmouth him themselves (and it’s Mom’s business to correct them), but even following their lead and agreeing with them is like playing in quicksand. Slowly, you’ll find yourself in over your head! Don’t agree with them. Don’t add to the fire. Just stay neutral.
And on a daily basis, if you can’t say anything nice about him, just don’t talk about him at all. If you’re asked your opinion, just play dumb or just smile and shrug. This is another chance for you to teach your stepkids how a real man (you) treats another.
Better yet, find some way to become allies with him. This is something I try to teach all my stepdad clients. If you can get your wife’s ex-husband to be your ally, your life will be infinitely easier. You’ll probably have to make the first move, reach out in peace by saying hello when he comes over to pick up his kids. Granted you have things to hold against him, but use your intelligence! If you can make peace with this vital factor in your stepkids’ lives, you will win their respect and gratitude. Plus you can remove one more source of aggravation from your life.
And together you can work for the good of the kids. Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Think of it as a challenge or a sales goal. Win him over and you win.
So, where does this bring us? You recognize that you have not only accepted a tough job in this new family, but that you also have the chance to be a Real Life Hero. You can be a stepdad who faces the challenge, refuses to back down, and wins one of the greatest victories known to man — honor and self-respect for a job well done. Millions of men take the challenge. Only the real men will succeed.
You can not quit. You can give up and run away, but you never can quit. If you chicken out, you will still be their stepdad — the one they always remember who failed.
God takes a dim view of dads who abandon their families. In The Bible, in the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 25 — 33, God tells how He expects you to treat your wife and your family. God calls for you to love them in the same way, and to the same extent that Jesus Christ loved the Church. Jesus was willing to go through extreme torture and pain, and He even gave up His very life to save each individual. Those who accept His sacrifice become part of this Church.
You are to love your wife and family just like that. Through any amount of pain and challenge, with your heart, body, and soul; all the way to the time you die; before yourself and all others. God calls you to be the leader of your family, leading them into safety and security through a combination of care, consideration, and common sense.
God calls you to be the priest — religious leader , spiritual guide— for your family. That means that you are to lead them by example toward a relationship with their Creator. Give your wife and kids a future that lasts beyond your and their lives. Demonstrate how to be a Christian, then help them become Christians, too.
Take them to church regularly. Teach them to respect God’s laws and they will respect themselves and others ... and you, too. Teach them that they don’t have to do it all alone. God loves them and is more than willing to help them through everything they will face in life. And you stand ready to bless them, too.
You can show them that, because He is helping you to be successful in your stepfamily.