by Ron L. Deal
“How tall is it?” I ignorantly asked a Kenyan missionary.
“Mount Kilimanjaro is over 19,000 feet tall,” he smiled. “It’s big!”
No kidding, I thought. I could see the outline of the tallest mountain in Africa from my third-floor Nairobi apartment 130 miles away. “It might take a while to climb, huh?”
On average it takes an expedition four to seven days to climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro. And why do people climb it? Because it’s there, right? Just conquering the challenge is one reason people take on this massive testimony to God’s creativity. And then there’s the view from the top. On a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles in a 360-degree panoramic view. Oh, yes, there’s plenty of reward for those who conquer the mountain. But it often doesn’t feel worth it until you reach the top.
When reflecting on his role as a stepfather, David said, “I simply didn’t have any idea how hard blending a family would be. I lacked any knowledge of how to deal with my stepkids.” Conquering Stepdad Mountain might not be as rugged as climbing one of the world’s tallest peaks, but it will probably take longer than you expect.
And you’re not just climbing because it’s there. You’re climbing because it matters. Yes, there is reward for you at the top, but there’s also reward for your family and stepchildren. How you live, love, and lead your stepchildren (and biological children) will create a legacy and heritage that long outlive you. It’s important that you climb well.
So how do you climb? Here are some best practices of smart stepdads, young and old, new and veteran. Consider how you might implement them into your climb.
1. Know your place. A smart stepdad understands that there is an inherent dilemma to his task: How can you be Dad when you’re not Dad? Obviously, you can’t. Even if the biological dad is deceased, you will never replace him, so don’t try. Playing “who’s your daddy” only causes stress in your home. And stress in a stepfamily thickens blood, pitting you against your stepchildren and often your wife.
2. Understand the limits of your role. It’s not your responsibility to undo the past. The negative consequences of divorce, or the pain children experience when a father dies is not yours to resolve. Come alongside children in these situations and try to offer a positive influence over time, but don’t try to be the white knight in shining armor. Just love them.
3. Move in with tact. Don’t be a bull in a china shop. Respect children’s loyalties.
“I became a stepfather when my stepdaughter was eight,” said Anthony. “Her father was very involved in her life and a good dad. There just wasn’t room for me in her heart; therefore, we had a very strained relationship. We were never able to build anything. Now that she is a grown woman, I sense she is becoming a little less competitive … but I think the best way to describe our relationship even now is ‘uneasy toleration.’” Anthony’s climb was and is steep. Thank goodness he respected this reality or things might have become worse.
4. Partner with your wife. She needs to believe that you are committed to and care about her, her children, and their past experiences before you will receive her trust. Therefore, do a lot of listening before injecting your opinion; demonstrate an authentic appreciation for all she has done to provide for her children before trying to make suggestions.
When you do make suggestions, especially early in your climb, be sure to reveal your heart’s intentions first. Consider the contrast between harshly saying, “Your son is a lazy boy. When are you going to make him get up in the morning and get to school on time?” and saying, “I have come to really care about David. I’m hoping to offer some guidance to him and better prepare him for life. I’ve noticed he’s struggling to manage his time and responsibilities with school. Can we talk about how we might encourage more responsibility in him?”
5. Until you have earned their respect, let your wife handle punishment with her children. Leadership that shapes character is a function of emotional attachment with a child. Ruling with an iron hand without a foundational relationship sabotages your level of respect and subverts what you are trying to teach.
Many stepdads mistakenly assume that not taking the lead is a sign of weakness. Actually, it is an indication of strategic wisdom and strength. So while taking the time to build a solid relationship and gradually moving into discipline, trust your wife to continue being the primary parent to her kids.
6. Be equitable in parenting. Wade observed, “I’ve always felt that my wife has supported my authority with her kids as long as it was fair and equal to what I’d use to punish my kids.” If you ever want to turn your wife into an angry mother bear protecting her cubs, just show favoritism to your kids and treat hers unfairly. Believe me, you’ll awaken the bear.
7. Unless proven otherwise, assume your stepchildren would pick their dad over you. Recognize that a huge step toward gaining your stepchildren’s respect comes from respecting their relationship with their father (even if he’s deceased) and not positioning yourself in competition with him. Doing so just pushes them further away from you and closer to their dad.
Tim, a dad of two and stepdad to two, understands this well. “I have always tried to keep in mind what I want my child to hear from my ex or her new husband about me. I then apply the Golden Rule to my stepkids’ dad. If, on the other hand, I put the kids in the position of having to choose between me and their dad, I always assume they would choose him. (This is especially difficult at times when I want to selfishly ‘one up’ him to make myself look better.) This also means that when my wife and stepkids are badmouthing him, I have to keep from being drawn into the discussion. They will turn on me in a heartbeat.”
8. Remain engaged. Through the years I’ve worked with many disengaged stepdads and their families. The reasons for their drift varied: one man had a “these aren’t my kids” attitude; another had an extremely introverted personality and he simply didn’t know how to engage people in general, let alone his stepchildren. Still others found themselves paralyzed by the guilt of not being around their biological children.
“How can I really enjoy my stepkids when I feel like I’m shorting my kids of my time?” one man said. “In some bizarre way I think I’m making it up to my kids when I deny myself time with my stepchildren.” Still other stepdads find that once they’ve disengaged, which may have initially been part of surviving the confusion of their role, they can’t find their way back.
If you have been disengaged, you can’t stay that way. You hold an important role in your stepkids’ lives. When you married their mother, you became a role model, friend, teacher, and mentor. The specifics of how intimate your role will become cannot be predicted, but you have a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities you are given. You can be a blessing to your stepchildren, but not if you don’t engage. Raise them to the best of your ability.
9. Don’t go it alone. A smart stepdad will also surround himself with a band of brothers. Joe, a stepfather of two, encourages young stepdads to be involved with other stepdads where you are open and honest about your life. “You cannot do this alone,” he says. “You desperately need other men to walk with you on this journey. Without my band of brothers I never would have come this far. If there are men in your life that have ‘meddling’ rights, then you can stay on the right path with the right attitude.”
Just Climb Stepdad Mountain. Just Be Dad.
Adapted excerpt from The Smart Stepdad © 2011 by Ron L. Deal. Published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by Permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies, Director of FamilyLife Blended, an expert in remarriage and stepfamily relationships, and author of a series of DVDs and books for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily and The Smart Stepdad. Learn more and listen to FamilyLife Blended, his daily one-minute radio feature, at familylifeblended.com.
Read more from Ron at fathers.com.