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A Stepmom’s Back to School Guide to Creating Structure Without Appearing Wicked!

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House Rules for Stepfamilies:

It’s back-to-school time, just the right time to cover a theme very common in many stepfamilies. So many stepmoms struggle with a home that feels chaotic and where kids have no chores, don’t follow basic rules or have otherwise unacceptable behavior. Too often the dads have not participated in organizing and setting up rules of the home, so things are unstructured and kids are not cooperative. If a stepmom takes over the role of disciplinarian without the support of the dad, she’s headed for that “wicked” label.

The stepmom’s life can be nightmarish if she can’t institute some order in her home and have some control. Yet, she hears the wise advice that as a stepparent, she shouldn’t come on too strong, especially in the beginning. And she’s often in the home with stepchildren as the “parent in charge.” What’s a stepmom to do? This article will give some guidelines for a process that can be followed to get a set of rules in place without positioning the stepparent as the “bad guy.”

Experts agree: we all do better with structure, and kids particularly need it. Imagine how effective school environments would be without structure! The structure provides the framework a child needs in order to manage his or her life. Even though it’s the job of adolescents to test boundaries, they still need those boundaries to push against. The structure provides children with security and the knowledge they are loved and safe. You may first want to do some reading on parenting with your partner (I recommend “Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World,” by Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson). Once both parents are on board with the need for some structure, it’s time to begin developing The House Rules.

1. If the stepfamily is new, and especially if the children are older, go slowly. As a couple, first decide on the most important rules with which to begin (no more than four or five). Once the system is working, you can add more without overwhelming the kids.

2. The House Rules need to be developed and agreed upon by the couple first. Then, brainstorm ideas for appropriate, logical consequences for infractions of the rules.

3. Sit down with your family at a calm, quiet time and get some input from them. (“What rules do you think are important to have in our family?”) Write down the rules everyone suggests.  Make sure the rules you identified above are included on the list. Use the words your children provide, so the rules are kid friendly.

4. Refine the rules so they are clear and specific. (Ex. “Be respectful” is vague, while “no name calling” is clear).

5. Next, discuss the consequences for breaking a rule. Here, you might find that the children have even stronger ideas than you do; the important thing is the consequences are clarified in advance for them. You may choose to accept the children’s input about consequences or to override them.

6. The rules need to be written down and reviewed by the family, and an agreement must be made to abide by them. Post The House Rules in a prominent place in the home.

7. Be consistent in enforcing The House Rules. If you are not, it’s worse than not having them. An important point is that The House Rules in a stepfamily should relate primarily to those things that affect how the household operates.
These are factors such as:

• Family time and structure. (Is everyone expected to be home for Sunday dinner? Does the family eat breakfast together?)

• How people treat one another. (Rules for respect, greeting upon arrival, etc.)

•Chores or household duties. (Including charts for rotations of dishwashing duties, etc.)

The stepparent clearly has a right to input in matters that affect the marriage and the home; you’re not likely to get an argument there. It’s best that The House Rules do not relate to guidelines of a more parental type (The privileges and responsibilities a parent would decide, for instance, about driving, dating, dress, grades, etc.).

This policy paves the way for a clean relationship between the stepparent and stepchildren. The stepmom can refer to The House Rules and say, “In this house, we ______.” The rules may differ from those in the other household in which the child lives; he or she may argue for an exception. But once the House Rules are in place, the stepparent can simply say, “In this house, we ______.”

While it’s still best for the parent to be the primary disciplinarian, the stepmom has the authority in the parent’s absence to enforce The House Rules that have been agreed upon.
This system solves a number of problems. It provides the stepmom with a sense of control over her home. It allows for enforcement of rules without it being seen as personal by the stepmom (“In this house, we _________.”) Once The House Rules are in place, it is clear to the children that she is backed up in these rules by the parent. And since a consensus has been reached, it eliminates many arguments.

Taking the time to define the rules of the home is a big step toward stepfamily adjustment. The family has reached a consensus about what’s expected and what’s most important. The boundaries have been made clear as to what the stepparent’s role is and is not.

Hammering this out requires communication, but it strengthens the couple and frees them from second-guessing one another. It takes the mystery out of what will happen when a rule is broken. You and your partner will enforce the same consequence for the same offense, building consistency. And when you’re tired or worn down, you can simply look at The House Rules chart to find the consequence, which is more likely to be effective if you’ve given it forethought. As a stepparent, when you find your words spilling into an area of discipline outside of The House Rules, you can learn to stop yourself and stay within the realm where you’re seen as having authority.

While children may rebel against this formal process, in all likelihood it will make them feel better. They know what to expect. The role of the stepmom is more clear. The house functions better for them, too. What are you waiting for? It’s the beginning of the school year and the perfect time to institute The House Rules!

*This article was written by Joan Sarin, M.S. and originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of StepMom Magazine.

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