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My Step-dad Struggles – Vol. 1 – “Playing Favourites”

“Our son did that!”
“You mean your son or my son?”
“You should see the stunt your son pulled today!”

With more and more marriages ending in divorce, the number of blended families continues to rise. In fact, in the stats I found, the blended family has become the most common form of family (1 out of every 3 Americans is either a step-parent or step child, or has some other form of blended family – that’s almost 100 million people). Aside from the normal everyday challenges that any family faces, a blended family has different struggles, challenges, and opportunities.

We are a blended family. Loyal readers of my work may remember that under our blessed roof, I have two children from my previous marriage (boy 9 and girl 6), my partner has one child from her previous marriage (boy 7) and now we have a new baby boy. We are almost three years in and I honestly believe we are a successful blended family.

While scheduling and unified discipline can be challenging, we have cultivated respectful working relationships with our ex-partners which makes the day to day life much easier. Without the added stress of strong negative emotions toward our ex-partners, we are better able to focus on our own relationship and the individual needs of our children.

In building our step family, we have moved slowly and with much thought and intention as to what is best for the kids. We have a happy crew in an energetic house, but I am failing at one of the biggest blended family challenges; treating all of the kids equally. It is a hard truth to admit to yourself and to your spouse that you are failing at something so important – loving and treating their children as your own.

Is it assumed that in a blended family, a parent will always favour their own biological child over a step-child? Is “biological favouritism” a reality? I know my partner is better at treating all 3 (now 4) equally, better at separating the behaviour from the person.  But according to winningstepfamilies.com, it’s OK for me to feel differently about my own children than my step-son. But is it? Something about that just doesn’t sit right with me.

I am terrified that in my step-son’s eyes, he feels he is at the bottom of my totem pole. But how can I help that?

I try so hard to be unbiased, non-judgmental, non-favouring, but my patience level and tone of voice are not the same for all three kids. My intentions are true, but sometimes I fail, and I hate it.

I have read the step parenting books and have learned how to discipline equally and earn respect, but when it comes time to discipline, I know I don’t create a level playing field. Hence, my biological children tend to get the benefit of the doubt more than my step-son. I should say that all three are amazing kids; bright, polite, and fun. They all make bad decisions and mistakes. But if it comes down to a “No, he did it!”/“No, he did it first!” my default loyalty seems to always be my own children.

In my mind, I strive to be tougher on my own kids (so that my step-son can see some tough love dealt their way) but is this an effective approach?

If I had a step-daughter rather than a step-son, I think things would be much different, not necessarily better but different. With my sons, as a father, I feel the need to help teach them to ‘be a man’ – not in a macho-stop-crying- testosterone way, but in a good-honest-ethical-man way. So with a step daughter, the behaviour triggers would be different, but the lack of equality might still exist.

In my “Loving My Red Headed Step Child” article (featured in the “Dads Behaving Dadly” book), I focused on the great challenges and opportunities of being a step-dad. I am not replacing his involved dad, so I am not his “real dad” but I am pretty damn close…way cooler than an uncle! It’s a constant balancing act of being involved, but not intrusive, respecting his own dad and also my own role in the parenting hierarchy.

As a step parent, new children are delivered into your life with their pre-existing interests, self-esteem levels, and behaviours. You only move forward, playing the hand you are dealt. Our role as step parents is to create a loving relationship with our step children — to add to their lives. Is this easier said than done? It’s been over a year since I wrote my ‘redheaded’ article, time is ticking, and I need to be better – starting with my tone of voice and the words I use.

In my last few articles, I have examined couples in conflict. One of the major areas of potential conflict for us is when there is a perceived injustice inflicted on a step child. That is when the lioness or poppa grizzly roars loudly – to protect their young. Perhaps my partner feels I was a little harder on her son in tone or consequence, or maybe I feel she didn’t have the patience for my daughter that she had for her son – etc, etc, etc. Any blended family can provide hundreds of examples of perceived injustices. Every parent has triggers that set us off, but we need to always separate the behaviour and choices from the child, especially in a blended family setting.

Here are 5 things I am working on to be a better step-dad…

1. Being hyper aware of the language I usemy son, our son, your son (our new baby should not be the only child to receive the “our” pronoun, they all should).   We also try to limit the use of “Step” in our house – he is my son, not step-son.

2. Keeping my tone of voice equal for all children.

3. Striving for a equal level of patience for all children.

4. Constantly separating the child from the behaviour.

5. Putting my relationship/marriage first — that is essential for blended family success.

The takeaways this week from my confessional (thanks for listening!), are that blended families may have additional challenges. “Biological favouritism”, be it intentional or not, is a daily challenge for many step parents. When people ask how many children I have, I use to say, “Two from my previous marriage, a step-son, and we have a new baby together”. But now, in this fresh new age of enlightenment, I just say four children, because that is the beautiful truth!

Time for you to confess, blended family or not, do you favour one of your children? If yes, what changes could you make to make things equal?

Until next time…

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