The biggest change I made this year, and maybe in my life, is becoming a step-dad. Moving in with my partner meant making a commitment to her three children, a commitment that turned out to mean a heck of a lot more after I made it than I had thought it would.
Becoming a step-dad is akin to becoming a father, but there are a few important differences that I’ve learned matter a lot. For one thing, it happens pretty quickly — one minute you’re single, the next minute you are surrounded by children in varying stages of development. There’s no slowly growing into your role or nine months of anticipation.
Here’s a few of the other things I’ve learned over the last half-year. Of course, this is by no means a complete list — anyone with children knows that the second you think you’ve got things down, everything changes. But I do have a great relationship with my step-children, something I really hadn’t expected. I’m not sure I’m a great step-father just yet, but I do think I’m becoming one.
Your love has no bounds, but your authority does.
Recognize early on the limits of your authority. Even now, most of my authority in our house is borrowed from their mother — I’ve actually caught myself on the verge of saying “just wait until your mother comes home”! I simply don’t pull much weight; instead, I have learned to be reasonable, to remind them of chores instead of demanding they get to work, and as much as possible to show them that what I have to say is sensible.
Don’t be Dad.
One of the big things that separates step-fatherhood from fatherhood is that your step-children (in most cases) already have fathers. Fathers that, chances are, they love very much. Fathers whose authority is much better established than yours. Whatever you do, don’t try to step into his place!
This means, first and foremost, don’t ask them to call you “Dad”. My step-kids’ step-mother tried to insist they call her “Mom”; it’s been several years, and there’s still a lot of resentment there. It may well happen that the kids slip up and call you “Dad” and that’s a great feeling, but don’t be selfish and demand it.
Likewise, don’t be too quick to dole out punishments. Remember, you don’t have a lot of authority; putting yourself in the role of Enforcer isn’t going to help. Instead, they’ll just learn to fear you. Give advice, offer firm warnings, and when things get out of hand, sit down with mom and present a unified front.
Finally, don’t ever badmouth their dad, no matter how much of a jerk he is. Usually they’ll side with dad, which leaves you screwed; but even if they don’t, you have no right to interfere in that relationship.
Be a Dad.
While insisting on being called “Dad” is a bad idea, that doesn’t excuse you from actually being a dad. Act responsibly, be there for the kids when they need you, share their joys and sorrows with them, build them up as much as you can, help them with their homework, offer advice, explain how things work, organize their day, and so on — all the things you’d do if you were their actual father. And do that knowing that you probably won’t get much attention or appreciation for it, because it’s the right thing to do.
Have one-on-one time.
One of the biggest steps I’ve taken in my relationship with my step-daughter was taking her with me on Take Your Child to Work Day. Mom works in a high-security area (for some reason, the kids haven’t gone through the FBI’s screening yet…), dad’s company forbids children on site, so I volunteered to take her to class with me. We had a great time getting to know each other outside of the hubbub of a house full of family, pets, and friends.
It’s easy to use mom as a shield to avoid getting to close to your step-children; take some time alone with your step-children to interact with them as individuals instead of as “family”.
Don’t talk down to them.
One of my rules in life is “never talk down to children or animals”. I tend to use the same vocabulary around my step-kids I use in the rest of my life (though I make sure to define or explain things that are clearly above their heads). I involve the kids in decisions, let them know what I’m doing each day (I have a different schedule every day), and just generally treat them as equals in conversation.
You’re in this together, you and your step-children — both of you have to work out the whole step-relationship thing, and it’s not easy. So make sure you listen and respond to their concerns. Don’t ever think you have nothing to learn from them — chances are, they’ll figure this stuff out faster than you and can show you a thing or two about being a step-dad.
Take cues from mom.
When I first moved in I spent a bit of time reading some of the step-parenting forums and websites on the Web, and was shocked by how many times I came across complaints about how “mom is spoiling these kids” or “mom doesn’t keep discipline” or whatever. Keep in mind that mom and your step-kids have worked out a living arrangement over years that may not make much sense to you at first but which makes sense to them. Deal with major disagreements out of earshot of the kids; in everything else, follow mom’s lead.
Can’t Buy Me Love
Don’t try to win them over with gifts, trips to the amusement park, or whatever. First of all, most kids are pretty savvy and will end up using your over-eagerness to manipulate you; second of all, you’ll rest your relationship on a foundation that you can’t possibly keep up — eventually you’ll run out of gifts to give and they’ll start resenting you.
Be open about your life, career, likes and dislikes, and interests — and make an effort to learn about theirs. Take part in their activities and involve them in yours. Not only will you find some common ground to connect on, but you’ll be able to take part in their development as people, which is what this is all about.
And, finally, forgive. Forgive them for being difficult, forgive mom for not always lending you a hand when you’re lost, forgive their friends for not understanding your new place in your kids’ home, and most of all, forgive yourself. You are going to make a lot of mistakes, just like I did. And am. And will. Accept that you and everyone else involved will experience failures — learn from them and move on, so you can embrace the joys and rewards of becoming a great step-dad.
[Note: I'm sure most of this would apply equally to becoming a step-mom, so feel free to change the genders accordingly.]