Walking The Line As A Step-Dad
There is no doubt that being a step-father means you are slotting into a difficult role.
The child in question is not your child - but after a time, they begin to feel like they are. You love them, care for them, consider their life choices and make decisions with them. They turn to you for advice and for when they want someone to play with. It's as close to fatherhood as you can get without the actual biological link.
It's the last part of the sentence that has a tendency to be problematic: without a biological link. There's no particular reason that biology should mean you should or should not have a say in the raising of a child, but it's an attitude that is pervasive.
So you have to learn to walk the line. It's a thin one, easily broken and not always visible even within an established family unit. It's fair to say most step-dads could do with a do/don't list, especially if it's a new situation for them. So without further ado...
DO: Be Supportive
You're not crossing a line if the child in question comes to you asking for advice and you give it. If the child's biological father is still in the picture and has a problem with this, then frankly, it's his problem. Any man who is secure in his relationship with his offspring should be glad that you're taking the time to share your knowledge with that child, not kicking up a fuss due to petty jealousies.
On the flip side, what if you do brush away the child on the assumption that it's not your place to offer them counsel? You're only a step away from being neglectful, from being seen as the kind of man who can't look after children if they're not his own. This isn't a good look for a strong family dynamic.
DON'T: Offer Unsolicited Advice
While you should be supportive, offer advice where requested and share your world with a curious child - it has to be at the child's request.
The difference is easy to see with this example:
Version 1: Kid comes home from school looking miserable. They are on the school football team, but they hate it. They want to quit and maybe pick up another sport. They turn to you and ask: "what do you think?"
Version 2: Again, a kid comes home from school and vents about how little they're enjoying football. You cut in and say when you were at school, you really loved baseball and they should try that.
The difference is subtle, but it is there. In one, you are offering advice because your opinion has been sought. In the other, it's too easy to be read as you pushing your agenda onto a child that doesn't want it. Even if it's not your intention, that's how it can be seen - that's the line you're walking, remember?
DO: Speak Up When You Sense Harm
As an extreme example, let's say that your partner decides the kids should go and play near electricity works. She looks to you to see if you concur it's a good idea. Now, you don't want to be seen as forcing an opinion or agenda - so you nod along and trust her parenting skills know best.
It's easy enough to do, but the end result is dealing with an electrocution in this case. The point to take from it is that you should always speak up if you sense there is a potential danger being walked into. For example, if your partner is looking for a new car seat, there's nothing wrong with suggesting a look at the best-selling child car seats in 2017 or repeating information you have heard about safety concerns. That's very different from wading in and demanding she buys a new car seat and influencing her decision on what to buy.
As a good rule, consider this:
You should contribute to the conversation, but you should not start the conversation.
Again, the separation between these two ways of handling things is wafer thin - but it can prevent a lot of issues developing.
DON'T: Mete Out Discipline
Quite simply, it's not your role.
Discipline is a tricky enough subject between married, biological parents of a child. It can cause major marital arguments, especially if family members wade in with their opinions to muddy the waters.
So you have to take your lead from your partner when it comes to discipline. That's not to say you can't ever criticize or chastise a child, but mostly, you should take the issue to their Mom. She can then raise it with them and deal with it as she sees fit. If you don't take this step, it's very easy for her to feel like you're going behind her back.
The longer you live with a child or children as their step-dad, the more rights you have over discipline. In that circumstance, they have become like your own child - but you still have to bear in mind that line of separation. Always discuss aspects like curfews and punishments with your partner before you act upon them.
DO: Talk To The Child
In the above instances, we've mainly focused on being a step-dad to younger children. However, if you have pre-teen or teenagers under your charge, then the matter changes. You should still talk about things with their Mom, but you can also develop a relationship with them individually.
To avoid a harsh "you're not my real Dad!" situation, instigate a conversation about how they see your role. This allows you to get feedback and see what you're getting right and where you're going wrong. It may be that they see you as their Dad, biology be damned, and they have no issue with you taking a leading role - but this is something you need to establish beforehand. A family meeting is a great idea to help iron these out; it might be awkward at first, but everyone will benefit from it.
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