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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.

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    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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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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