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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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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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