At my daughter’s graduation ceremony, I along with a host of parents, family members, classmates, and friends, waited my turn to hug and take photos with my graduate. Through the crowd, I saw a familiar face of another man as he waited to give my daughter a hug. The two embraced, I witnessed tremendous emotion on his face and heard him say to her, “I am so proud of you!”
I was taken back, surprised by his emotional reaction—not because my daughter’s achievement didn’t deserve recognition, but because he was her stepfather. For the first time, my eyes were opened to the remarkable impact that man had had on my daughter’s life. I began to understand the depth of this stepfather’s love, even though the girl was not his flesh and blood.
Sometime during their childhood, nearly half of all children in the U.S. will live with a stepfather, foster father, uncle, or another father figure who is not their biological father. Yet many dads are concerned when a new man enters the picture. They know of or have heard stories about stepfathers who abuse their stepchildren. And many biological dads view the new man as a threat to their relationship with their children. Maybe there’s some leftover bitterness toward their ex-wife, and it hurts to see her in a new relationship.
Plus, it plays into our competitive spirit. As boys, many of us played sports and games in which someone wins and everyone else loses, and of course we always played to win. And that influenced how we view the world. When another man comes into our children’s lives, we view him as a rival for their affections and go out of our way to make sure he appears inferior to us in our children’s eyes. We want to remain in “first place” in the contest for our children’s love. I felt like that for years until my eyes were opened during that graduation event.
We dads may not stop to think about the added benefits of a stepfather’s involvement in our children’s lives. And when we do recognize it, it’s difficult to admit that it’s true. When a stepfather or foster father is considered a partner rather than an adversary, extended co-parenting can be mutually beneficial, not only for the men involved but especially for the children.
Based on what I’ve learned, here are four important tips:
Reach out to him as a partner.
Start a conversation with the stepfather or write him a letter about working cooperatively to raise the children. You might begin to establish a positive relationship simply by communicating through email or a letter. Putting your words on the computer or on paper gives you time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. Ask him to send you a note just to say he received the e-mail or letter.
Once communication is launched, talk about your children’s needs.
What are their strengths and how can both of you encourage your children to develop them? Where are they struggling and how can both of you help them through the difficulties? A good area to work on together is school and homework. If you agree on routines, rules, and expectations related to school and homework—and you agree to aim for consistency in enforcing the rules—you will jointly create a more stable environment for their development. The children will feel twice as important as they see two men working together toward their best interests. Your cooperation with their stepfather will also help reduce or eliminate potential feelings of betrayal and guilt your children might have if they show they care for their stepfather.
Be secure in your role.
Having a stepfather in their lives does not mean your children need you any less. In fact, as a separated or divorced dad, your involvement is particularly important to your children. Take the time to really get to know them so you become more skilled at sensing when something is bothering them. Become aware of their needs, moods, personalities, and overall development as they grow. If your children believe you have a genuine interest in their lives, and you’re not simply going through the motions of caring, they may be more open with you and confide in you if something is bothering them. They will find it easier to talk to you and will share their thoughts and emotions as they face life’s successes and challenges. Your involvement and openness also can pave the way for your children to have an equally honest relationship with their stepfather.
Respect his situation.
Remember, the process of building a parenting partnership is probably just as frightening for the stepfather as it is for you. Many men are working very hard to be good stepfathers, foster fathers, uncles, and role models to today’s children. If your children are lucky enough to have one of these good men in their life, try to get past your own insecurities or jealousies so you can work with him for the sake of your children. Both you and the stepfather will need to have patience, understanding, and often a sense of humor. But as with any potentially long-term relationship, the benefits will come if you stick with it.
One man can make a big difference in the life of a child. But two men who have the children’s best interests at heart, and who work together, can more than double the positive effect.
Action Points & Discussion/Reflection Questions
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Randell Turner, Ph.D. is an author, counselor, and a pioneer in the men’s & fatherhood movement. Specializing in healthy masculine intimacy, he has dedicated over 20 years in working with men who feel broken, rejected, isolated, and lonely because of their struggles with “intimacy ignorance.” His personal and professional experience inspired the creation of “Rescuing the Rogue,” designed to equip men in forging intimate relationships to last a lifetime. He lives in Wisconsin and has two daughters and seven grandchildren. For more information, check out his website: TransformingFamilies.org.