Q: In a recent column, you advise that stepparents have complete disciplinary authority over all children who live in or visit the home, but do you feel the same policy should apply when the stepparent joins the family when the kids are teenagers instead of younger children?
A: Your question is of great importance in a parenting culture where so many parents are bringing children into second marriages. It is also important for adults in so-called stepfamilies to understand that the majority of mental health professionals are giving decidedly bad advice concerning this issue: to wit, that parents should only discipline their own - as in, biological or adoptive - children. As I said in the column to which you referred, this is a recipe for a second divorce.
My authority in this area rests on personal as well as professional experience. My parents divorced early in my life, and my mother remarried when I was 7. Before the second marriage took place, she informed me that what my stepfather-to-be told me to do, I was to do - period. Under no circumstances was I to come complaining to her about his rules, instructions or discipline. I did not like it, but my mother's policy was clearly in the best interests of our new family; therefore, it was in my best interests as well.
The party line in child and family psychology has it that this arrangement causes resentment in a nonbiological child, thus their position. Mental health professionals essentially advise, as they generally have for
50 years, that a child's feelings about an issue should rule or at least be of significant consideration.
Two facts should be taken into account: First, children do not know what is in their best interests; second, a child's emotional reactions are often irrational, in that they do not reflect either a wide-angle or long-range view. That assessment applies significantly to teenagers.
With that in mind, yes, a stepparent's authority in the home ought to be unequivocal, but that requires a pre-existing condition, which is that both the biological parent and the stepparent are on the same page concerning child-rearing matters. That also requires a pre-existing condition, which is that the primary relationship in the "new" family be between husband and wife. When Mom and Dad are not on the same page, it simply means one or both of them values their relationship with the child or children over their relationship with their spouse. Said another way, when married adults are husband and wife first and mom and dad second, agreement concerning child-rearing issues will be relatively easy.
On the other hand, if the biological parent identifies with his or her children's emotional reactions to the stepparent's rules, instructions and discipline and responds protectively - which is an operational definition of co-dependency - the new family's integrity is in deep trouble.
The bottom line is that as my mother did, people ought to get these issues straightened out before a new marriage with children takes place. In this case, striking while the iron is cold is the best policy.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his websites, johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.