- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

Margorie Engel, president and chief executive of the Stepfamily Association of America, a national nonprofit organization, offers the following tips for successful stepfathering:

• Major decisions

Many new stepfathers make a crucial mistake in their new role when they try to impose their rules and be authoritative toward their wives and stepchildren. This authoritative approach won’t work because the stepfather is not a “replacement parent” but rather an “additional parent.”

Instead, the stepfather’s role should be to support major decisions made by the biological parents.

If an important decision has to be made on the spot at a time when the biological parent is not around, the stepparent should make sure the stepchild knows it’s a temporary solution.

One way to prepare for the role as a new stepfather is to go to stepfamily support groups and pick up tips and advice from seasoned stepfathers.

• Household rules

Household rules, however, are different. A stepfather can help decide what should be expected of the stepchildren in the home.

He and the mother can discuss what chores and rules apply in the house. For example, should television be allowed before dinner? Should the children have to help with the dishes a couple times a week?

Household rules can be discussed at weekly or monthly “family meetings” in which all individuals in the stepfamily can raise their concerns and questions about the rules and other aspects of stepfamily life.

At times, when the mother is not present and a disagreement over a household rule comes up, the stepfather, instead of being authoritative, should say: “Your mother is not here, and I am simply here to enforce the household rules.”

• Parenting skills

If the stepfather is new to parenting, it’s important for him to read up on child development to identify certain behaviors.

If you’re new to parenting and the child throws a temper tantrum, it’s easy to start second-guessing the mother’s parenting skills when really that behavior is quite normal. “Maybe it’s the ‘terrible twos’” for example.

Parenting classes and books on child development can help the stepfather.

It is also the biological parent’s responsibility to make sure that the stepparent is as prepared as possible for the new stepparenting role.

• Bonding

It’s very important that the stepparent spend one-on-one time with the children because that’s how you build a personal history. You start sharing experiences with your child.

If the shared experience is a visit to an art museum exhibit and works from the exhibit ever come up in a different context, both child and stepparent can talk about their day at the museum.

The shared experiences and the one-on-one time as well as taking care of the child’s immediate needs such as food, getting picked up from school and getting tucked in at night are what ultimately build trust and respect.

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