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Becoming a Great Step-Dad

Becoming a Great Step-Dad
Helping Hand

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    Listen.

    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.

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    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.

    Share

    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.]

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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