What to do about "discipline"
Firstly, a note about the word "discipline". For the purpose of this article, I'll use the term discipline in terms of how to respond effectively to times when your stepchildren have engaged in disrespectful behaviour, broken rules, or been rude to either you or your partner, as examples. This isn't about punishment - you can't punish a child into being better behaved. Rather it's about seeing every situation where a child has misbehaved as an opportunity for them to learn a lesson that will help them become healthy and happy adults.
That said, disciplining your own biological children is hard enough, disciplining someone’s else’s children can be fraught with complexity and tension, as well as a battlefield!
While in most cases it's more appropriate to leave disciplining your stepchildren to your partner, there will undoubtedly be times when you're alone with your stepchildren and they will have either deliberately or innocently broken a house rule, been disrespectful to their siblings or to you, or failed to do something they were meant to do. What then?
First things first
In the first few days, weeks and months of being a new stepfamily, it's more important to build a bond with your stepchildren than coming in straight away with a whole new set of house rules and expectations.
You may well have strong ideas about how your partner parents, and as an "outsider" you may see very clearly how things could be run better in the home. Maybe the children have got away with not doing any chores or you feel they're being spoilt by mum or dad (who may well be spoiling them because they feel guilty about the break-up of their marriage). Firstly, this is not your business! Resist the temptation to start "putting things right". Your partner and their children will have their own way of doing things - if your arrival also coincides with things becoming stricter in the home and the children now must do more chores, guess who's going to get the blame! And be resented!
Early on in your relationship, discuss how your partner handles things like house rules, consequences, chores and rewards for example - so you can support them too. If you don't agree with them express how you feel, but at the start, it's important not to rush in and change things immediately.
Start slowly, listen to your stepchildren, take a genuine interest in what they do. Start by taking on the role of the "babysitter" - as in, if the kids start misbehaving, your role is to remind them of what mum or dad expect. "Come on now, you know Mum doesn't want you to watch more than one hour of TV in the evening, so we're switching the TV off, okay?".
This doesn't mean you're being a doormat or being walked all over - the rules still apply, as do the consequences of breaking those rules - but the children know that these are coming from their parent, not the new step parent - as in, you!
Find time to have fun with your stepchildren. Be the fun one who suggests going bowling or on a bike ride. Watch a movie together or order in pizza. The fun times you spend together help create stronger bonds of trust as well as creating memories for the future - and set you up to be listened to as an authoritative parent later. Be yourself and don’t try too hard. Don’t try to "act cool" - children can see right through this. They want you to be an adult - just a fun, understanding one.
Rules, chores, consequences and rewards
Once you've established a bond with your stepchildren, you can slowly ease yourself in to talking more about things like house rules, consequences and so on with your partner. It's your home too, so you have a right to be able to discuss how you would like things to be. If your stepchildren are allowed to go to bed very late by your partner, for example, but this means they don't get up in time for school in the morning, and you're the one who must do the school run, then of course, this impacts you directly - you may well have a better idea of how things could work.
Take some time with your partner to discuss your ideas for how house rules could change, or new rules can be put in place. Listen carefully to their reaction. You may find some resistance, which again might well be due to parental guilt, or a different parenting style. Talk about how you feel - and also express the changes you want to make in terms of how they are good for your step children (i.e. "doing chores as a child will help them get an idea of taking responsibility") or for the family as a whole ("if the children go to bed earlier, they'll get up more easily and then we won't have all this last minute stress in the morning").
Ultimately your partner will have the final say in how his or her children are raised, but this doesn't mean you can't have some input. However, there will be times when you might just have to accept that your partner is not parenting the way you would. Do your best to let it go. Your partner still needs support - they will make mistakes too, but they will learn from them. Try to see it from their point of view.
Children need reward and praise too, so don’t forget to acknowledge good behaviour. Encourage positive attitudes and show appreciation whenever you can. Showing your appreciation to your stepchildren goes a long way towards them trusting you as a friend and not necessarily a parent. If they have a mum and a dad then why would they need another parent in the mix?
- Build your relationship with your stepchildren first before you start disciplining.
- Set out boundaries and house rules with your partner early in your relationship.
- Always discuss any issues or problems, with your partner away from the children.
- Be a friend and not a third parent.
- Most important of all, give your new family a chance to grow and resist the temptation to try to "fix things" by becoming a disciplinarian.
Show a United Front
When it comes to any parenting, it's crucial that both parents present a united front. Disciplining in conflicting ways will confuse your stepchildren and be ineffective as a result. It also runs the risk of causing friction in your own relationship with your partner.
Communication is vital and something that needs to be consistent between both parents. When you talk about the children, make sure it's behind closed doors out of earshot of the children and any other family members. If you show your children that you're not on the same page this opens an opportunity for your stepchildren to play you and your partner off against each other.
Showing a united front is useless without consistency. Whether it’s enforcing house rules or making sure chores are completed, being consistent together is the only way to be effective with the rules and boundaries you and your partner have set up. Lack of consistency in delivering consequences often leaves the children confused and can lead to anxiety if children don't trust what the inconsistent parents are saying. If children are allowed to "get away" with not following a house rule just once, then they're likely to keep challenging house rules. They'll know that if they push the boundaries, they'll likely not be held to account for it as they got away with it last time.
Trust your judgement and keep talking to your partner. If you feel strongly about something your stepchildren are doing or not doing, then always communicate your concerns to your partner and agree on an outcome that satisfies you both. Work together as a team, discipline as a team and build your blended family together.