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Becoming a Great Step-Dad

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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.

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    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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    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

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    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

    How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

    Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

    When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

    Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

    What Makes People Poor Listeners?

    Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

    1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

    Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

    Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

    It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

    2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

    This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

    Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

    3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

    It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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    I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

    If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

    4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

    While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

    To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

    My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

    Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

    Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

    How To Be a Better Listener

    For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

    1. Pay Attention

    A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

    According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

    As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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    I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

    2. Use Positive Body Language

    You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

    A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

    People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

    But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

    According to Alan Gurney,[2]

    “An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

    Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

    3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

    I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

    Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

    Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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    Be polite and wait your turn!

    4. Ask Questions

    Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

    5. Just Listen

    This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

    I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

    I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

    6. Remember and Follow Up

    Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

    For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

    According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

    It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

    7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

    If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

    Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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    Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

    Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

    NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

    1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
    2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

    8. Maintain Eye Contact

    When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

    Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

    By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

    Final Thoughts

    Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

    You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

    And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

    More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
    [2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
    [3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
    [4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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