Stepfamilies Can Succeed
ARE SUCCESSFUL STEPFAMILIES POSSIBLE? YES, ESPECIALLY IF ALL INVOLVED REMEMBER that “all Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) When everyone applies Bible principles, success is virtually ensured.
The Basic Quality
The Bible sets down only a few actual laws to govern human relations. Mostly it encourages the cultivating of good qualities and attitudes that guide us to act wisely. Such good attitudes and qualities are the basis of happy family life.
It may seem self-evident, but it is nevertheless worth saying that the basic quality needed for any family to be successful is love. The apostle Paul said: “Let your love be without hypocrisy. . . . In brotherly love have tender affection for one another.” (Romans 12:9, 10) The word “love” is much misused, but the quality Paul referred to here is special. It is godly love, and it “never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) The Bible describes it as unselfish and ready to serve. It works actively for the good of others. It is patient and kind, never jealous, boastful, or conceited. It does not seek its own advantage. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes.—1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
Genuine love helps to smooth over differences and unite people with very different upbringings and personalities. And it helps to counteract the devastating effects of a divorce or a biological parent’s death. One man who became a stepfather describes his very real problems: “I was often too concerned about my own feelings to analyze the emotions of my stepchildren or even of my wife. I had to learn to be less sensitive. Most important, I had to learn to be humble.” Love helped him to make the needed changes.
The Biological Parent
Love can help in handling the children’s relationship with their now absent biological parent. A stepfather confides: “I wanted to have first place in my stepchildren’s affections. When they visited their biological father, I found it hard to resist the temptation to criticize him. When they returned after a pleasant day with him, I felt terrible. When they had a bad day, I was elated. Really, I was afraid of losing them. One of the most difficult things was to come to terms with the importance of the biological father’s role in my stepchildren’s lives.”
Genuine love helped this stepfather to face the fact that it was unrealistic to expect “instant” love. He should not have felt rejected when the children did not immediately accept him. He came to realize that he may never completely replace the biological father in his children’s hearts. The children had known this man from their earliest days, while the stepfather was a newcomer who would have to work for the children’s love. Researcher Elizabeth Einstein reflects the experience of many when she says: “The biological parent can never be replaced—never. Even a parent who is dead or one who has abandoned the children retains an important place in the children’s lives.”
Discipline—A Touchy Subject
The Bible indicates that loving discipline is essential for young people, and that includes stepchildren. (Proverbs 8:33) A number of professionals are coming around to the Bible’s position on this. Professor Ceres Alves de Araújo stated: “By nature no one likes limits, but they are necessary. ‘No’ is a protective word.”
However, in a blended family, views on discipline can lead to serious rifts. Stepchildren have in part been molded by an adult who is now absent. Likely, they have habits or customs that may irritate the stepparent. And they probably do not understand why the stepparent feels strongly about certain matters. How to deal successfully with the situation? Paul exhorts Christians: “Pursue . . . love, endurance, mildness of temper.” (1 Timothy 6:11) Christian love helps both stepparent and children to be mild and patient as they learn to understand one another. If the stepparent is impatient, ‘anger, wrath, and abusive speech’ can quickly ruin any relationship that has been achieved.—Ephesians 4:31.
Insight into what will help in this was provided by the prophet Micah. He said: “What is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Justice is vital when administering discipline. But what about kindness? One Christian elder relates that it was often difficult to get his stepchildren up on Sunday morning to share in congregation worship. Rather than berating them, he tried kindness. He got up early, prepared breakfast, then took each of them a warm drink. As a result, they were much more inclined to heed his appeal to get up.
Professor Ana Luisa Vieira de Mattos made the following interesting comment: “It is not the type of family that is important but the quality of the relationship. In my studies I have observed that young people who have behavioral problems almost always come from families in which there is weak parental supervision, a lack of rules and communication.” She also said: “It can never be sufficiently emphasized that rearing children implies the need to say no.” In addition, Drs. Emily and John Visher stated: “Basically, discipline works only when the person receiving the discipline cares about the reactions of and the relationship with the person doing the disciplining.”
These remarks touch on the question of who in stepfamilies should administer the discipline. Who should be the one to say no? After talking matters over, some parents have decided that, to begin with, the biological parent should be the main disciplinarian in order to give the stepparent time to build a closer relationship with the children. Let the children learn to feel confident of the stepparent’s love for them before being disciplined by him or her.
What if the stepparent is the father? Does not the Bible say that the father is the head of the family? Yes. (Ephesians 5:22, 23; 6:1, 2) However, a stepfather may wish to delegate the matter of discipline for a while, especially if it involves punishment. He may allow the children to obey ‘the law of their mother’ while he lays a foundation for them to ‘listen to the discipline of their [new] father.’ (Proverbs 1:8; 6:20; 31:1) Evidence shows that, in the long run, this does not work against the principle of headship. In addition, one stepfather says: “I remembered that discipline includes admonition, correction, and reproof. When this is given in a just, loving, and compassionate way and is backed up by parental example, it usually works.”
Parents Need to Communicate
Proverbs 15:22 says: “There is a frustrating of plans where there is no confidential talk.” In a stepfamily, calm and frank confidential talk between the parents is vital. A columnist in the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo observed: “Children always tend to test the limits set by the parents.” That may be doubly true in stepfamilies. Hence, the parents need to come to an agreement on different matters so that the children will see that they are united. What, though, if a stepparent acts in a way that the biological parent feels is unjust? Then the two should sort things out in private, not in front of the children.
One mother who remarried relates: “The most difficult thing for a mother is to see the stepfather disciplining her children, especially if she feels that he is acting hastily or is not truly just. It breaks her heart, and she wants to defend her children. At such times, it is hard to remain subject to one’s husband and support him.
“On one occasion, my two boys, aged 12 and 14, asked their stepfather’s permission to do something. He immediately refused and then left the room without giving the boys any opportunity to explain why the request was important to them. The boys were ready to cry, and I was speechless. The older boy looked at me and said: ‘Mom, did you see what he did?’ I answered: ‘Yes, I did. But he is still the head of the house, and the Bible tells us to respect headship.’ They were good boys and agreed with this, and they calmed down a little. That same evening, I explained things to my husband, and he realized that he had been too authoritarian. He went straight to the boys’ room and apologized.
“We learned a lot from that incident. My husband learned to listen before making decisions. I learned to uphold the principle of headship, even when it hurts. The boys learned the importance of being in subjection. (Colossians 3:18, 19) And my husband’s heartfelt apology taught us all an important lesson in humility. (Proverbs 29:23) Today, both sons are Christian elders.”
Mistakes will be made. Children will say or do things that hurt. Pressures of the moment will lead stepparents to act unreasonably. However, those simple words, “I am sorry, please forgive me,” can do much to heal wounds.
Strengthening Family Unity
It takes time to build a warm relationship in a stepfamily. If you are a stepparent, you need to show empathy. Be understanding, ready to spend time with the children. Play with the younger ones. Be prepared to talk with the older ones. Look for opportunities to spend time together—for example, invite the children to help with household tasks, like preparing dinner or washing the car. Invite them to come along and help when you go to the supermarket. In addition, small, affectionate gestures might show the love you feel. (Of course, stepfathers should be careful to observe proper boundaries with their stepdaughters and not make them feel uncomfortable. And stepmothers should remember that boys have boundaries too.)
Stepfamilies can be successful. Many are. The most successful are those in which all involved, especially the parents, cultivate right attitudes and realistic expectations. The apostle John wrote: “Beloved ones, let us continue loving one another, because love is from God.” (1 John 4:7) Yes, heartfelt love is the real secret of a happy stepfamily.
[Pictures on page 7]
spend time together . . .
study God’s Word together . . .
talk together . . .
work together . . .