There’s quite a bit out there on that what, when who and how of punishment in blended families. Should the non-bio parent punish the kids or not is a raging debate on the interwebs. So I figured, why not throw my voice into the fray. What harm could ever come of that? <— famous last words! I guess I should be prepared to be eaten alive by the naysayers in the end though. But for what it’s worth here is my two cents.
Some of the best advice that I’ve found was on the familylife.com website. Why? Because it shifts the focus from disciplining to relationship building. This is important for a couple of reasons. Family Life touched on the importance of influence and authority. Remember authority does not necessarily have to mean authoritarian; do as I say, because I say so, but more of a relationship where a child will do what s/he is told because the respect for authority and influence has been cultivated.
The other reason relationship building is important because inherently people seek affirmation and will do and say things to get it. This means that the healthier your relationship is with your child (notice I didn’t say stepchild) the more they will seek to do the things that please you and avoid the things that have proven to disappoint you. Recognize that this is a power differential and use your powers for good.
In Empowering Parent’s 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting the author suggests that the stepparent default to the bio-parent in matters of discipline. While this is good advice, I feel that it’s a little incomplete. They are correct in asserting that doing this helps the stepparent to build relationships with their children. However, it’s not always practical and doesn’t cover all the bases. While it may be ideal to default to the bio-parent it may not always be possible. If you are in a situation where you must deliver consequences first and foremost be sure you’re not doing so out of anger and frustration. You may need to take a step back for a second and collect your thoughts if the kids have ruffled your feathers a bit. Second, be fair and if at all possible be sure that the punishment fits the crime.
Two of my girls had an issue remembering to put their seat belts on when getting into the car. I told them that if I had to tell them again there would be consequences. Sure as rain is wet they forgot again and as promised consequences followed. Once we arrived home I supervised as both of them got out of the car, closed the door, opened the door, got back in closed the door and put their seatbelt on 20 times. This unorthodox consequence was both effective for them and humorous for me, I enjoy creative behavior solutions.
This brings up a couple of other things. Being consistent chief among them and follow though on what you say. An easy way to be sure that this happens is to not make promises (or threats) that there is no way you can keep. For instance, don’t tell your kids that you’ll exile them to the moon if they keep getting on your nerves. Being inconsistent will diminish your credibility and your kids will continue to test the limits of your consistency. You don’t want to be in an endless cycle of testing boundaries, that will tire the most dedicated parent.
Finally, I think it’s important for the stepparent to engage in the delivery of consequences once a positive relationship is formed to help children develop a healthy respect for authority figures. Far to often these days kids lack respect for teachers, police and other public authority figures (not your kids of course). Learning to respect the fact that this new adult in their life is an authority figure is an important step in learning to respect authority figures outside of the home as well. Remember though, this should happen slowly and once a positive bond has been developed.
So let’s recap. When you first enter your new family situation be sure to focus on establishing a positive relationship with your kids. In the beginning, this will most likely require that you leave the consequence delivery tasks to the bio-parent. Keep in mind that this may not always be practical and you may be placed in a position to deliver consequences before you’re ready. Remember to be consistent, creative and fair. Finally, you want to be sure that your kids grow up to have a healthy respect for authority figures which begins with you.