Over the years my husband and I have been asked a lot about being a blended family. Besides the practical questions people are just plain curious to hear how we all get along, or don’t get along. It seems more and more parents are finding themselves in a blended situation and are wondering exactly how to make it work.
I would say the most common challenges we hear about involve disciplining the kids. Parents find themselves unsure of how to discipline. Moms wonder how to implement rules without taking on the wicked step-mother reputation. Dads want to know how to get the respect they deserve without being seen as a dictator. Kids are trying to figure out their roles in this newly formed alliance. With everyone nudging their way through the family dynamic there’s a lot of opportunity for elbow jabs and bruised ribs.
Recently I was asked again about how we disciplined our kids over the years. Of course different ages equal different stages and how you discipline when kids are young can be much different when they’re teens and young adults. As most parents know, if you have more than one child, what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. When you consider a blended family you are not only dealing with all the usual disciplinary nuances but you also deal with the other “bio” parent, differences in parenting styles, split home time, and a multitude of other factors that can influence or undermine your attempts. Parenting is a challenge, but you can make it a blessing too.
So back to the question, how do you discipline in a blended family? Truthfully, when you hear my answer you’re probably not going to like it. At least not at first. I promise though if you honestly try to implement this on a consistent basis you will find your blended family acting more like a regular ol’ family.
First I want to talk about a common mistake. It is the my kids vs. your kids mentality. When you become a family you will need to work carefully and thoughtfully at bringing the family together instead of keeping the divide. The Bible says in Mark 3:25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. The New Living Translation reads, Similarly, a family splintered by feuding will fall apart.
This means being keenly aware of the proclivity to favor your own kids. In other words if you wouldn’t discipline your kids in that manner, don’t do it to theirs. Be fair. Ask yourself the question “Is this really worth getting angry over?” If it is than deal with it appropriately. But, remember the attitude that your kids would never do such a thing is really your opinion. Your kid might do something worse next week and then the expectation will be that you discipline them just as passionately. Trust me the other kids will be watching to see if you’re being fair and so will your spouse.
You may feel that you are not only fair but you are tougher on your own kids. Many parents feel frustrated by this. They feel it’s unfair to hold their own kids accountable in a way that they feel they can’t hold the other kids responsible. It may be true but I’m going to challenge that notion.
When you discipline your own kids you have one ingredient that you don’t share with the other kids. That ingredient is DNA. Your kids are yours. They know you love them and accept them and will forgive them even when they mess up, right? That’s the unconditional love of a parent. But what about the kids you don’t share that DNA with? Well here’s the part I told you that you wouldn’t like. You need to love them anyway. In fact you may need to handle them with even more love and compassion while you are first establishing your relationship with them. Of course there’s a balance you have to keep. Your kids will feel hurt if your hard on them and easy on the others.
Disciplining in love is way more effective than just disciplining. Think about this for a minute. If a boss at work came to discipline you and had been constantly picking on you about what you do wrong but never told you what you do right or that you’re appreciated, how would you feel about the correction? Hurt, offended, maybe you’d be angry? It doesn’t matter that the correction may be appropriate. Now imagine you have a boss who truly appreciates you. They regularly thank you for your hard work. They tell you they appreciate you. They take time to recognize your accomplishments and look for opportunities to praise you. Now how do you feel when this person comes to correct you? It doesn’t seem so harsh does it? This manager is correcting in love. They have built a relationship with you and you know that although they are correcting you, you are still safe in your job because they see your value. You understand it is just a correction and you are not being fired.
It’s the same with kids. They need to know they are safe. They need to know that you are just correcting them. They need to know that you still see their value.
If you can’t see their value because you are so frustrated and hung up on all the things they do that drive you absolutely nuts. Then don’t discipline them. Leave it to the bio parent and be adult enough to know you need to just step back and stay out of it. Even if you do not agree with how it’s being handled, you are in no position to be judging if your heart is filled with anger. In fact that is the worse time to discipline. Remember you wouldn’t want your spouse to discipline your kids in that state. (And yes that means even if the child has done things that deserve your anger.)
I’ve heard parents say; well you don’t understand our situation. You don’t know how bad they actually act. Maybe the child has some behavior challenges. Sometimes those are diagnosed. Whatever the situation may be I can truly say losing your temper, holding anger in your heart, and keeping a list of all the frustrating things they’ve done will not help you. If you truly want the situation to improve you HAVE to let some of it go. The best way to earn respect is to give it. I’ve heard step parents say, that’s a two way street and they should earn my respect if they want it. And what about “spare the rod spoil the child” ? Yes, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be discipline. Don’t misunderstand me. I agree there are consequences to bad behavior. You and your spouse should be clear with one another on what that may be. I’m saying they are not adults, thinking like adults and making adult decisions. You are. It’s up to you to lead by example and teach them the appropriate way to manage their frustrations, make better choices when their emotions are getting the best of them, and model clear decision making. I agree kids do need accountability, they need boundaries, they need discipline and rules.
I once heard someone compare disciplining to blacksmithing. Iron is hard and difficult to shape. You can hammer on it and try to force it to bend but it will remain resistant to being molded. However when you apply heat suddenly it is much easier to mold and shape. It softens enough that it can be shaped with much less force and impact. Of course it’s a process of heat then force, more heat, and then more force. Over and over again until the iron is shaped. Love is the heat and discipline is the force, the iron is not the child, it is your relationship. If you want to shape your relationship with a resistant child/teenager try love before force.
Kids need discipline. They also need love. Discipline with love. Try it. I double dog dare you.