Living in a Step Family Without Getting Stepped OnLiving in a Step Family Without Getting Stepped On
Dr. Kevin Leman
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Birth order--as families are blended, shuffled, and rearranged, it's anything but static. When children from two families are brought together by the marriage of their parents, all of them are plunged into what Dr. Kevin Leman calls the birth order behavior. You can blend a family--without breaking it--Leman promises. "The principles in this book will help you wage the battle of blending your family--and come up not only a survivor but a winner!

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The Seven Secrets of Blended Family Discipline

      The proud owner of the brand new twenty-one-foot day cruiser hadn’t sailed the waters around Buffalo and Grand Island much before, but Lake Erie was choppy so he decided to head down the Niagara River and show his lady friend some of his navigating skills.
      The west branch of the Niagara provided some idyllic scenery, and then, as they headed on north past Navy Island, he decided to cut the engine and just drift with the current so that they could enjoy the scenery. As they came around a bend, he wasn’t sure but he thought he saw rapids up ahead-and wasn’t that mist in the distance?
      Just then, a siren shrieked to the starboard, and he looked up to see a Coast Guard patrol boat bearing down on him at high speed. As the long arm of the law came alongside, a bullhorn bellowed, “Do you have engine trouble?”
      “No, not really,” the weekend admiral shouted back. “We were just drifting for a ways to enjoy the scenery.”
      “Man, do you know where you are?”
      “Not exactly. I think we just came out of the West Niagara River.”
      “That’s right, and about a mile from here you would have gone right over Niagara Falls.”
      “Thhhaanks for the warning,” the day cruiser managed. “We’re out of here!” He hit the throttle and was out of sight in seconds, no doubt shaken but wiser man.
      I know this scene may sound a little farfetched, but, unfortunately, it’s reenacted many times each year when unknowing boaters wander too close to the danger zone above Niagara Falls. As I grew up in the Buffalo area, I often heard about boats that had wandered too far down the river and gotten into real trouble.

Are You Drifting Toward the Falls?
      As I have counseled hundreds of families, original and blended, I’ve sometimes thought of those boats drifting downstream, headed unknowingly for Niagara Falls. Parents often come to me because their children are totally out of control and they are at the end of their rope. When I inquire about what system of discipline they use to cope, I often get the feeling they are adrift with no real plan in mind. The approach they are using is obviously not working, and unless somebody sounds the siren, they are headed for real disaster.
      You have probably heard some child-rearing expert comment: “People are required to take a course to learn how to drive; they are required to take a course to learn how to give CPR; but anyone can become a parent with no credentials whatsoever.” Without training or input, most people tend to parent the way they were parented. When they marry-or remarry-they bring the same parenting style they grew up with, which in most cases means either authoritarian or permissiveness or a mixture or both.
      Permissiveness is based on a warped idea of love: “All we have to do is love little Buford and everything will be just fine.”
      Authoritarianism is based on a warped idea of limits-the more limits the better: “As long as you live under our roof, you had better toe the mark, or else.”
      It’s not uncommon for one parent to be basically permissive while the other’s style is authoritarian. In other cases, one parent may use both styles, depending on how the parent feels at the moment. Usually the parent tries to be “nice” and is permissive to a point. Then, when little Festus builds a fire in the living room, without the benefit of a fireplace, the parent goes ballistic and cracks down with authoritarian wrath.
      Swinging back and forth-from permissiveness to authoritarian and then back again-is an inconsistent approach that treats the child like a yo-yo. Its not wonder that so many children grow up to become yo-yos who have a terrible self-concept and practically zero self-esteem. When they marry and become parents themselves, they may be aware that what they’re doing isn’t working, but it’s not easy to kick the habit.
      One blended family mom, a firstborn, told me she has a hard time because she’s constantly fighting her own reactions to the parenting style she learned from her father. As we talked, she told me of an incident when her five year old, also a firstborn, was throwing a temper tantrum and she couldn’t get him to calm down. Naturally, her son is the one most like her, so when she sees him out of control, it really gets to her.
      She got so frustrated she screamed, “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!”
      And the very moment she said those words, she could see her dad’s face right there in front of her. “I see all this coming out,” she told me, “and then I try to fight it, but I’m left with, ‘Now what do I do?’”
      This mom’s plaintive question is a good example of why parents need a system of discipline that achieves a happy medium, where the children get plenty of love but also some reasonable limits that teach them how to be accountable and responsible. This need is especially acute in the blended family, where a couple seeking to blend her kids and his must present a united front.
      According to many stepfamily specialists, discipline of the children is the number one issue in the blended family. I agree. As I emphasized earlier, you and your spouse will stand or fall, sink or swim, together, and if there is anything the two of you need to work through and agree upon it’s, “Who will discipline the kids and how will it be done?”
      As you work out a system that you both can be comfortable with, a good rule of thumb for blended families is:

Start out with each parent disciplining his or her own natural children.

      In the majority of cases I’ve seen, natural mothers need this rule more than natural fathers do. The natural mom is reluctant to let the stepfather discipline her kids. If she has been living for some time as a single mom, it’s not unusual for her to have slipped into a permissive approach, and she may be reluctant to do much disciplining, period. In other cases, however, the natural dad may be the one who is lax, and he will tend to leave the disciplining to his new wife, a practice which often places her in the role of the wicked stepmother.
      So to begin with, in the blended family it is best if natural parents handle the disciplining of their own children. This should be a short-term solution, however, and in the long run, you want to find a system where both of you can discipline all the children consistently and lovingly.
      Stepparents should work into disciplining their stepchildren a little bit at a time. Don’t leave all the disciplining to the natural parent because this will undermine the stepparent’s position of authority in the home. I have talked to many stepfathers, in particular, who feel emasculated because they “don’t dare say anything” to stepchildren. But at the same time, their wives are reluctant to let them do any disciplining because they think they will go too far.

The Seven Secrets of Loving Discipline
      In any family, the key to discipline is finding the right balance between giving the children plenty of love and giving them adequate limits that hold them accountable for their actions. In the blended family, this problem is multiplied because suddenly, children and adults are brought together in a stepparent/stepchild relationship. They have no history, no bonds have formed, no trust has been developed.
      Blended family parents need a system that can help them bridge these gaps. They don’t necessarily need to institute law and order, but they don’t need to use “love and order.”
      Principles of discipline that I have taught consistently are described in a book I wrote over ten years ago, Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours. For blended families, I call this system Loving Discipline because it gives you a consistent, decisive, respectful approach to disciplining your children and assuring them of your love at the same time.

      Maintaining this delicate balance in a blended family is vital because you are dealing with children who have been “ripped” and deeply hurt by divorce (or the death of a parent). They need compassionate guidance and training plus the limits that make them feel secure and stable. All parents need to walk the line between authoritarianism and permissiveness, but blended family parents need to walk it with special care as they practice the following principles:
1. Relationships come before rules. All of the secrets of Loving Discipline must be used gently but firmly in order to obtain the best results. If parents in a stepfamily try to use Loving Discipline without extra sensitivity to the anger their children feel (usually because of the divorce that made their blended family possible), its effectiveness will be greatly reduced (more on anger in chapter 10).
2. The whole is more important than the parts. With all those birth orders and lifestyles bumping and crisscrossing, certain family members may try to control the entire family. When Loving Discipline is practiced consistently, all family members are treated fairly; all get equal time and equal opportunity to participate and contribute.
3. You are in healthy authority over your kids. In other words, you are not too authoritarian or too permissive. You strike a middle ground that some parenting specialists call authoritative. In the blended family, the crucial question is, “How much healthy authority can the stepparent exert with his or her stepchildren?”
4. Hold children accountable for their actions. Loving Discipline does not punish but lets the child pay a reasonable consequence for misbehavior or a poor attitude. In a blended family, goals and rules must be carefully spelled out. Clearly communicate as well who holds whom accountable.
5. Let reality be the teacher. Using reasonable consequences as a tool and not a weapon in the blended family is an art. When telling a blended family child, “I’m sorry, you broke the rule, and now you can’t go to your Little League game,” you must be sure to temper firmness with friendly good humor.
6. Use action, not words. A key to Loving Discipline is to give children responsibilities, but always reserve the right to “pull the rug out.” Try to avoid prescribing punishment (If you do this, then that will happen”). Make clear the kind of behavior you expect from your children, but keep the consequences varied, depending on the kind of training you believe they need at the moment. This keeps them a bit off balance, but it helps them concentrate on being responsible and accountable instead of simply trying to avoid certain predictable consequences.
7. Stick to your guns. This is an all-important principle, particularly when a child is wailing, crying, carrying-on, or telling a stepparent, “You’re not my father!” In a blended family especially, sticking to one’s guns does not mean mowing everyone down. It means being firm in enforcing whatever rules you all have agreed upon, even when your heart is breaking for the child who has just chosen to lose an entire weekend of wonderful activities by not being responsible.