A Step Up for Stepparents

O.K, stepparents, I recently had one of the most amazing experiences as a soon-to-be step dad.

But first, here’s an interesting, linguistic tidbit for stepparents. The word, “step,” for parents is incorrect. It’s correct for stepchildren only. “Step” comes from the German word, “steop,” which means orphan, so a child being raised by a non-biological parent is accurately, his/her stepchild. The term, “stepparent,” became popular only by association with the stepchild, and evolved in modern times with the increase in divorce. This little known fact comes from Robert Somerset, a historian with a specific interest in 17th century, northern Europe.

It may not be a coincidence, then, that stepparents often feel like orphans, the outsiders in the family, the adults who play a central role in parenting, yet who are expected to concede at all times to the biological parents. This secondary view of stepparents is common as well among the children whom they raise. They usually call stepparents by their first names, rather than “mom” or “dad.” Hmmm. No endearing title of respect for you. Just your name.

So here’s my extraordinary experience as a stepparent.

During my Monday night coaching class, I discovered that I make a lot of assumptions about my parenting. Mostly, I think I do an excellent job, that the girls love me, and that there’s nothing to improve upon.

I discovered as well that I often get mired in the “less than” point of view of stepparents, which I’ve described above; that is, a diminished view of myself as a parent because I’m not a biological parent. As a result, I find myself trying hard to assert myself with the biological parents, establishing myself as an equal partner, and doing everything I can to let them and the girls know that I’m just as important as they are.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s healthy to be an empowered stepparent, one who is confident and committed, and who demands respect where respect is due. In my case, I am a part-time house husband, and both biological parents work full-time, so I have more parenting time with the girls than they do – tutoring, preparing meals, shopping, and performing other tasks that contribute invaluably to the girls’ health and well being, their educations, their values, and their futures. My point here is NOT that I shouldn’t assert myself as a parent, but that I tend to overcompensate for the commonly held perspective of stepparents as “less than.”

So I started wondering: “What would it be like to find out how I’m really doing as a stepparent. What if I just asked the girls?” And this is what I did.

There we are in the living room, the girls and I, and I’m describing the game we’re about to play. They are 6 and 8 years-old, so they love making up games. “You know how we go to your conferences at school, and your parents and your teacher sit at a table, and they talk about you? They tell you how you’re doing in math, language arts, etc., and then they make suggestions about how you can improve? Well, today we’re going to do this for me. We’re going to play Stepdad Conference.”

“We’re playing this game because I want to be the best parent that I can be, so I want you to tell me how I’m doing.” “But what if we hurt your feelings?” “You’re not going to hurt my feelings. I can take it. There are only two rules: you both have to talk, and you have to tell the truth. No lying so that I won’t feel bad.”

I have three questions written on a piece of paper, and we review them together. 1) What do you like about me as a stepparent? 2) What do you not like about me as a stepparent? 3) If you could tell me to do, or not do, one thing that would make me a better stepdad, what would that be? (I give them the same three questions for being a boyfriend to mommy.)

I tell them to go upstairs and take ten minutes to talk about their answers. They return, and I set up my phone to record the first Stepdad Conference of our lives. The girls are giddy, and a little bit nervous. So am I.

What ensues is one of the cutest, most innocent, and eye-opening conversations I’ve ever had with children. In a nutshell, here’s what I got. First, what I assumed they didn’t like about me as a stepdad, didn’t even come up, and what they liked, was exactly what I had hoped they liked – that I “play with” them and “take care” of them really well. The same is true about their “boyfriend to mommy” answers. I thought they would say that they don’t like it when my fiance and I fight, but they didn’t. And what they said they like is that she and I get to be together, and love each other.

Another “like” for both of them was playing Monster. This is 15 minutes of after-school fun, before we start homework, piano practice, etc. Essentially, they run away from me, and when I catch them, I tickle them, wrestle them, bounce them on the bed, etc. The objective is for them to escape and make me run after them again.

On the “not like” side of being a stepdad was squeezing their faces too much. This was a surprise. I apologized for this, and explained that they’re so darn cute, and this is one way I show affection, but that I can show it a different way. They were generous, saying that I could still do it, but not so much.

They also don’t like my farting, which is more like extreme flatulence.

I was honest that I didn’t know what else to do about it, after doctors, pills, natural remedies, etc., but that I would work on doing it in the bathroom, or otherwise away from them. They made an exception for when we play Monster, because the Toxic Fart Cloud is one of the monster’s weapons.

Also on the “not like” side of being a stepdad was “giving them hard math and language arts assignments.” I didn’t address this during the conference itself, but I will. I have 21 years of teaching experience, so I’ll have no problem articulating the value of challenging students to perform at a level they wouldn’t choose themselves.

“Yelling at us sometimes” was also on the “not like” list. I will address this later with them as well. I’m betting that most parents will agree that there’s a time and a place to raise one’s voice to children. Also, parents are human beings, and sometimes we take out our crap on our kids. I’m not condoning this, but as long as we own up to it (to our kids), then at least our children will respect us for admitting a mistake, and they’ll learn that it’s safe for them to make mistakes too.

Lastly, on the “not like” side of being a boyfriend to mommy, was kissing in front of them.

This was a surprise. To be clear, my fiance and I don’t make out in front of the girls, but we do show affection by pecking each other on the mouth. We don’t consider whether or not the girls can see us. I apologized to the girls, and I explained that when they react, (“Eeewwww! They kissed!”), we kiss again just to keep the reaction going. It’s cute and funny to us, but not so much to the girls. I told them that we would cut back on the kissing in front of them, and they responded adorably that we could do it “a little bit.”

My favorite answer of the entire conference was, “play with us more,” in response to the question about one thing I could do to be a better stepdad. This reminds me of how wonderfully playful children are. They love playing with children their own age, but they love playing with their parents too.

I walked away from my first Stepdad Conference feeling deeply satisfied with myself as a stepparent.

It definitely took courage, honesty, and humility to do what I did, but it was entirely worth it. I realized today that I gave the girls the gift of respect. I asked them genuine questions, I listened to them, and I took their answers seriously. It’s obvious to me know that I am doing a fantastic job as a stepparent. The girls love me, and I can simply relax and employ their suggestions.

As I was cleaning up after the conference, I thanked the girls for playing with me, and the younger one asked, “Are we going to do that again?” “Well, maybe every six months to a year. What do you think?” “O.K.”

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