Does a stepparent have a right to discipline their stepchildren? It’s a tricky path to navigate, and almost certainly there’ll be missteps along the way. After all, being a stepparent is undeniably challenging, but with time and effort, it can be equally rewarding and joyful. Understanding the role you are to play in establishing and reinforcing boundaries for your stepchildren is crucial. We discuss some of the dos and don’ts of stepparent discipline.
Discuss your stepparent role with your partner
Before you jump in the deep end of parenting, discuss your role with your partner. Find out what their expectations are from you, and be honest about what you think you’re capable of. This may evolve over time, but it’s crucial you’re both on the same page. Once you both agree on how involved you’ll be in setting and maintaining boundaries you can have a family meeting to share with the children. The more communication, the better!
There’s no doubt you’ll probably hear the words, “You’re not my real mom/dad!” thrown your way at some point. Try to calmly explain that you’re not trying to take the place of their bio-parent, but that you do have their best interests at heart. It may not defuse the situation but it will help you both remember the role you play in their life.
Is it okay for stepparents to discipline?
The most important thing is that the whole family understands what’s expected of them. If you and your partner agree that curfew is 8 pm and that the consequence of breaking curfew is no devices (and your partner’s teen knows this rule), you should feel confident enforcing it. It’s not new information, the rule wasn’t created by you, you are simply being a responsible guardian. Be fair, be consistent, and above all, be patient.
You should have a very good understanding of how your partner chooses to parent and respect their choices. If they have chosen the respectful parenting path and you feel their children need more discipline, this is NOT your choice to make. If they are strict about screen time and ‘junk food’ and you think the kids should have more freedom to watch and eat what they want, this is NOT your choice to make. As a stepparent, you are in a position to help discipline your stepkids in line with the parenting choices your partner has deemed best.*
*This does not apply in situations where discipline has become child abuse. If you are concerned about your partner’s treatment of your children or stepchildren you should reach out to a child abuse prevention service.
Stepparent Discipline vs Punishment
Over the years, discipline has been conflated with punishment. There is an idea that children need to be ‘disciplined’ in order to learn how to behave well. It may come as no surprise that we at Blended for Life are big fans of respectful parenting. What this means is that we are constantly having an open dialogue with our kids, helping them learn, role-modeling the behavior we want to see, and setting and gently enforcing healthy boundaries.
There’s no need to fall into the role of disciplinarian. You might find that you stepparent most effectively simply by role-modeling being a thoughtful and caring person. You might become the ‘fun one’, more like a cool aunt/uncle than a replacement parent. Or maybe you are the boundary setter, calmly reminding the kids when they have pushed things too far, and being a safe place for them to retreat to.
This is not a “first-marriage” family
Both parents should come to terms with the fact that “ours is a blended family”. The functioning of the family unit differs from a family where the children live with their biological parents. Try not to idealize how a blended family “should be” or mimic a traditional family dynamic. It’s an unrealistic expectation and will make life harder for everyone involved.
So should a stepparent discipline their stepchildren?
- Understand what you mean by discipline
- Agree with your partner on your role as a stepparent
- Be consistent and be patient
A personal story from our founder
“My daughter refers to her bio-dad as ‘Daddy and her step-dad (my husband) as ‘Papa’. Papa is a little bit of a clean freak, and he can always be seen wiping up someone’s mess or complaining about someone’s mess!
One day, after dinner, my daughter got up and put her plate in the sink. She then proceeded to wipe her placemat and even the chair on which she sat (because her greasy fingers have been all over it!). I asked why she started doing that. And she said, ‘Because Papa does.’”