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Step-Parenting Basics: How to Define Boundaries and Share Child Rearing Responsibilities.

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Step-Parenting Basics: How to Define Boundaries and Share Child Rearing Responsibilities.

Perhaps more than at any other time in our history, blended families have become a common occurrence. Often, the exact configuration of the newly combined family involves one partner who brings one or more children into the new family and one partner with no children of his or her own. This combination has great potential for success, but also great dangers unless the two adults take some time to create some ground rules that everyone will respect.

Step-parenting resources often focus on what the step-parent is to say and do. While helpful, that is only one side of the equation. There is also the issue of how the birth parent chooses to support and work with the step-parent to achieve consensus on the process of properly bringing up children. Unless the adults are in sync with one another, the household is much more likely to be a chaotic one, and the children will be caught in the middle of the chaos.

Before the blended family becomes a legal reality, the two adults must come to terms on the basics of how child rearing will take place in the home. This means a period of intense self-examination, engaging in what may be difficult discussions, and working out specific courses of action that will be utilized when it comes to issues of discipline, education, and other core elements of raising a child.

How To Begin the Journey

Before the birth parent and the future step-parent begin this season of intense soul searching, they need to agree on a few essential points. Doing so will help keep the discussions on track and also provide insight as to the type of parenting they are capable of providing as a team. For purposes of engaging in constructive discussions, both adults must:

  • Recognize that both adults will be actively involved in the lives of the children. No one in the household is an observer; everyone is a participant in the family.
  • Realize that each adult is likely to have his or her own ideas about what constitutes proper child rearing. Even when they seem to agree on the broad concepts, a little discussion is likely to yield significant differences that must be resolved sooner rather than later.
  • Understand that for the children to receive full benefit from the parenting effort, there must be a united front between the birth parent and the step-parent - no exceptions. Anything less is not in the best interests of the children.
  • Accept that to create this united front, the adults must be totally honest with each other about their thoughts and feelings as they relate to their roles as parents and their place within the family unit.

Once the adults can agree to these foundational precepts, it is possible to begin creating the framework that will serve as the basic model for the blended family. It is important to note there is not one 'right' model that is ideal for every situation. However, it is imperative that both adults are in harmony with one another if the home is to be a happy one.

A Common Flaw in the Birth Parent's Perspective

All too often, the birth parent makes an assumption that he or she will be first among equals. That is, the birth parent can and will override decisions made by the step-parent without consulting the step-parent.

An assumption of this kind is toxic to the function of the household and the well-being of the children.

Whatever the two adults work out among themselves, the children must never have the impression that a step-parent possesses less authority than the birth parent. This means never correcting a step-parent in front of the children, and never reversing a decision unilaterally. Children are quick to pick up on discord between the adults and attempt to utilize that discord to get what they want.

The birth parent must commit to supporting the step-parent as a full partner in the process of raising the children. Unless this commitment is made up front, there is far too much potential for the step-parent to feel like an outsider in his or her own home, a state that does nothing for the children and ultimately will cause harm to both the children and to the marriage in general.

A Common Flaw in the Step-Parent's Perspective

Just as the birth parent must be careful of falling into a pattern of being the dominant parent, the step-parent must be aware of the dangers of attempting to assert too much authority within the home. Far too often, a step-parent feels under pressure to 'prove' that he or she is a good parent. This can lead to incidences of being unnecessarily strict or critical of the children's behaviour, and possibly jumping to conclusions about the intentions of the birth parent.

The step-parent must be willing to admit that the birth parent has experience and expertise that were acquired over time. Those assets did not miraculously emerge when the child was born. They took time to develop. A step-parent can shorten the learning curve by actively soliciting advice and counsel on particulars of each child�s personality and temperament, what kind of disciplinary measures produce the desired results, and all sorts of miscellaneous information that will come into play each day.

In short, the step-parent must be teachable if there is ever going to be unity in the household. That means letting go of this perceived need to prove oneself in the parenting arena. Taking time to learn and develop as a parent will ultimately be much more rewarding and do a great deal to create loving and healthy relationships with all the children in the home.

Setting the Parenting Boundaries

It is important to decide how the two adults in the household will work together when it comes to parenting responsibilities. No simple format will be ideal in every family situation. However, several general guidelines will apply:

  • Decide who is to be the primary disciplinarian and who will be the supporting parent. In different households, this may be the birth parent, the step-parent, or a responsibility jointly shared by both parents. Any combination will work, as long as both parents have agreed on what constitutes proper discipline in the home, and how that discipline is to be administered. To the children, when one parent backs up the other parent, the effect is that both parents applied the corrective action, rather than one parent being seen as the authority figure and the other adult as being of less consequence.
  • Discuss specific scenarios related to child rearing. What will a parent do when there is a fight between a brother and sister and the other parent is not at home to intervene? How do things progress when a child becomes ill at school? While it is impossible to iron out a procedure for every possible incident that could happen with the children, discussing and working through as many scenarios as possible helps to create general methods that adapt quickly in a crisis.
  • Cover all legalities involved in providing safety and proper health care for the children. Depending on applicable laws, this may mean providing the step-parent with a power of attorney so that he or she can authorize medical treatment in an emergency without waiting for the birth parent to arrive.
  • Be brutally frank with one another in all your discussions. While this may be tough, keep in mind that honesty on the front end will make it possible to avoid conflicts later on. Hold back nothing about your feelings, even when you suspect it may be hurtful to the other party. The only way to constructively deal with those feelings and resolve them is to openly discuss them. Remember you are doing this for the benefit of the children, not out of a desire to hurt one another.
  • Establish specific parental functions that each parent will oversee in the life of the household. This provides the opportunity for both parents to interact with the children in some capacity each day. It really does matter who reads the bedtime story, who helps with homework assignments, and who plays a game with the kids on a lazy Saturday afternoon. The children benefit from the continuity this type of approach generates, and both adults experience a feeling of being connected and necessary in the lives of the children.


When it is all said and done, it is not about which parent has what rights in the household, or who is the dominant adult in the home. It is about working together to develop a home environment that provides the children with a sense of security, belonging, and an understanding that both adults are there to protect, educate and encourage them as they mature.

To accomplish this, both parents must support one another, discuss issues away from the children when necessary, and in general function as a team to handle the new situations that will appear from time to time. Doing so will ensure that the step-parent feels empowered and capable while the birth parent feels supported and not alone in the child-rearing process.


Harriet Fox

Harriet is a Parenting Coach and the author of several books about parenting. She draws on her own experience as a mother as well as the latest research in child psychology to provide effective child raising advice and tips.

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