Stepparents are just another possible, and valuable member of a co-parenting team. Although mom and dad will always take top honors in the position of their relationship with the children and for making decisions related to the kids; a stepmom is often called upon to carry out a lot of important parenting duties and becomes very much a part of the family!
The boundary of inappropriate versus appropriate and wrong versus right is not often distinct, leaving a stepmom to feel as though whatever she does is wrong and likely to upset someone, especially when it comes to discipline!
If she gets “too involved” and administers a punishment, mom may become furious at her for saying or doing something negative to her children.
If stepmom lets unwanted behaviors go because she fears retribution from mom, or even her spouse, the kids learn to respect her less and less and their home becomes increasingly chaotic.
If she jumps in to intervene out of necessity, she faces the wrath of stepkids, who may be coached not to have to listen to their stepmother because she’s “not their mother!”
The best case scenario would allow for stepmom to be able to bow out of ever having to be a part of discipline, leaving it strictly up to mom and dad to handle. The reality of it is that a stepmom may spend as much as half of the child’s life with them, and may provide childcare for extended periods of time without a parent present.
What should a stepparent do -and not do- about discipline of a stepchild?
Never do anything in the area of discipline without having permission to do so and an explicit understanding of what the child’s parents expect and consider to be appropriate. The only way you will know what is acceptable in the child’s parent’s perception is to have in-depth conversations with the parent. Stepmom and spouse should try to be completely on the same page with their parenting philosophies, and there should be no doubt about boundaries.
Think of this as a conversation a parent should have with a paid childcare provider before leaving children with them the first time. Most infractions will probably be reported to the parent for them to deal with, and the caregiver’s actions should fall within the boundaries expressed by the parent.
Leave as much as possible to the parent to deal with, as appropriate. Depending on the age and development of the child and the nature of the offense, some measures of discipline are better administered right away; otherwise, the child forgets what has happened and discipline loses its effectiveness.
If a stepparent is left alone with children for an extensive time, there must be a plan! A stepmom can’t be left with no authority to handle issues that need addressed; but, she should also stay within the bounds of her role. Is it okay for her to give a time out? Is it okay for her to withhold privileges of any kind? Is it ever okay for her to spank a stepchild?
The home should have clearly-stated rules and expectations for behavior that all children in the home are expected to adhere to. If there are stepsiblings residing together, it’s only fair, and realistic, for all children to be treated in the same way; otherwise expect mutiny when some are perceived to receive preferential treatment!
A stepparent should, under no circumstances, be verbally, physically, or emotionally abusive to the children in their care! This includes not engaging in behavior that undermines or alienates their other parents. A stepmom should act as a loving support to the co-parenting arrangement, rather than one that tears it apart!
Stepchildren should be expected to respect all adults, including stepparents. If a stepparent is left in charge of stepchildren, their parent should make it clear that she should be listened to, that her authority will be backed, and all issues will be communicated to the parent for them to address.
Leaving a stepparent in a situation where children know the stepparent is helpless to act or in a position to be attacked by parents for doing anything is unfair to all. Not only is tying her hands setting her up for failure, but parents can be assured of an increase in unwanted behaviors because kids know they can get away with anything, and stepmom is the one likely to be punished!
A stepmom should not counter-parent. It’s bad enough if a stepmom is over disciplining; but, it can be just as damaging if she doesn’t uphold rules of the parents and, instead, lets children run wild without an adult’s guidance. Some stepmoms may be tempted to take this approach to be “cool” or ingratiate themselves with stepkids as more of a buddy than a parent. Other stepmoms may take a hands-off approach for fear of making a mistake or being raked over the coals by parents.
What does effective stepparent discipline look like in real life? This is how my family handles stepparent discipline:
My husband and I talk extensively about our kids, behavior concerns and trends we’ve noted in our home, and how we think they should be handled. We know exactly how each of us feels about disciplinary needs because we talk about it all the time!
Our kids know exactly where we stand with expectations for behavior and consequences. This leaves little room for accusations of preferential treatment or confusion in the moment. We discuss matters at the dinner table each night and regularly hold family meetings.
We never lay a hand on each other’s children. We allow each other to give time outs or withhold privileges; but, the most serious behaviors are left to mom or dad.
The kids know, without a doubt, that they are to listen to and respect each of us, and they know their parent will hear about disrespectful treatment of a stepparent.
I don’t intervene unless I have to. I’m not trying to win a “Wicked Stepmother” award for continually riding the backs of my stepkids. I am also under the scrutiny of their mother who does not have as much structure in her home; so, I know that anything I say or do can be used against me in some way.
In a perfect world, kids could experience complete consistency between homes and caregivers so that they never have to question right from wrong, and the adults who tend to them don’t have to second guess their actions, either.
Discipline is a sticky subject for stepparents, but it can be simplified with open communication and clear expectations for all. If a stepmom cannot be respected or backed in her decisions to do what she’s entrusted to take care of, then she should not be put in the position to care for kids. By the same token, stepmom needs to adhere to the boundaries of her role and the wishes of the parent. With time, patience, and a lot of discussion, the right balance can be reached!