I’m going to start this article with a little personal confession.
Mea Culpa this is called in the law.
I’m not a lawyer … I learned this from watching Law and Order and probably also the movie Legally Blonde.
If you look it up in google you will see that “mea culpa” is described as an admission of one’s own faults and errors.
In the first years that I was dating my future husband and our first years of being married I sometimes felt like his kids should behave differently than they did. I also often wanted him to discipline them differently than he did. Here are some things I thought.
- The kids should be more polite
- The kids should not want so much attention
- The kids should eat healthier food
- The kids should use silverware at the table
- The kids should watch less TV and for sure at a lower volume
- OMG inside voices … please.
- The kids should be more respectful to me
- The kids should be less frustrating to me
- They should sleep in their own beds and go to sleep on their own. (I laugh at myself at how I thought that was such a simple thing before I had babies who did not ever want to sleep when I wanted them to.)
Hindsight is 20/20 and when I look back I have a bit of a different view.
When I was a new stepmom I can see that I did not have a good understanding of early childhood behavior or developmental timelines.
You literally cannot know what you don’t know because you don’t know it
I can also see that I simply didn’t know at the time. What I knew was that what I was doing was sometimes frustrating and hard.
My situation might not be exactly the same as yours. In my case, I entered into the relationship without any children of my own.
I don’t think I gave it much thought. I figured that I must know what I needed to know. After all I had been a kid and I was now an adult. That’s experience, right?
I had been a babysitter, camp counselor, swim instructor and many things that worked with kids. I had gone to college and in our society we lead with this idea that raising kids should somehow be automatic. What else was there to know?
Turns out … quite a lot, actually.
I think that this can be a bit of a challenge when it comes to being the parent or stepparent we want to be.
If you’re curious, the other common situation for this is when a two adults with kids join in a family and they do have parenting experience and knowledge but it’s a little different from the other parent. That was not my personal lived experience but I help adults with that too.
Adulting information is not automatically known
This information about raising kids truly, in my experience, is not automatic. The knowledge of what’s normal at different ages is not something we all just instantly know.
What this means is that I can now see that my expectations of how children could behave were sometimes incorrect.
As a result, I made myself a little bit miserable.
Okay, sometimes that was a lot miserable if we’re being totally honest here.
Honesty is good.
I was often expecting something that wasn’t realistic. I occasionally was trying to get my husband to uphold a standard that wasn’t possible and I paid the price. Honestly, we all probably paid the price.
When one person in a house is cranky … well… it impacts the whole house.
You may have lived this in your life. You are having a nice day and then BOOM cranky kid. No more nice day. It happens the same if it’s cranky mom or cranky dad.
One way that I learned this was when I became a biological mom and I dove in deep to learning how kids develop.
The other way that I learned that was by being a part of my kids and stepkids progress over the years.
I was not in my stepkids lives until they were 4 and 8 years old.
The third way that I learned this was When my stepkids became teenagers. I was able to remember how I had felt at those ages. I was the youngest adult in the mix and I was also the only one who had lived with divorced parents. My experience was sometimes spot on where the other adults were not. That was interesting to see.
I’ll give you an example. When my stepkids asked to stop coming over to my husband’s house mid-week I actually spoke up for the kids. I said, listen this is a huge hassle for the kids to do this shift. I proposed instead of sleeping over that he pick them up, take them to after school activities, have dinner with them and take them back to the other house in time for the nighttime routine and bed.
At first my husband thought I was trying to get out of time with his kids. He thought that was unfair to him. It was less time with him.
It is hard to be an adult after divorce and split the time between parents. It’s very hard for everybody. This is true, in my opinion.
I said, “nope.”
I didn’t command. I didn’t tell anybody what needed to be done or what I thought was best.
I gently shared my observation of some challenges that the kids faced with the weeknight sleepover.
For example school clothes in the right size were sometimes at their mom’s house, their homework space is at their mom’s house, their morning routine is at their mom’s house their shower stuff is at their mom’s house. We sometimes didn’t have the breakfast foods or lunch foods they liked at our house (kids change what they like rapidly). They even had a carpool from the moms house and we messed that up for the routine when they stayed at our house.
I also shared how hard that was for me as a kid to shift houses and not have it mess up everything. My husband listened to what I was saying. He thought about all the things that came up every week for the kids. Clothes and toys and books and things that were at the other house and I think he saw how tough that was for a midweek shift.
To be clear I didn’t know anything at this point about coparenting. Not a single thing. I wasn’t interested in being correct or being liked. I simply had my lived personal perspective of having experienced shared custody and how hard it can be as a child.
As a note – I know lots of kids and families who really enjoy a mid-week change between parents homes so this is not a statement against the shift. In our case the kids were struggling.
The bigger thing that I eventually noticed was when the the timelines between my biological children began to overlap the ages when I had known my stepkids I would realize that some things that my stepkids had done were developmentally totally normal and that my response as an adult at the time had actually been unhelpful.
For example, I remember being frustrated with all the pretend play and repetitive games with the 4-year old. When my daughter was 4 I saw that in a totally different light. It’s not because one kid was my biological kid and the other wasn’t – it’s because I didn’t have knowledge and perspective before.
That was painful for me to realize.
But I think it’s important for me to share because I think this is a massive area of conflict between stepparents and stepkids.
If I can help you to reduce this I would really like to help. If you are struggling in your blended family with the behavior of your step kids reach out to me because I have lots of tools to share.
I worked hard to be the best stepmom I could be but the thing with not knowing stuff is that you just don’t know it.
I did do the best job that I could at the time with the knowledge that I had.
The Glorious Age of the Internet
Developmental timelines are something that are pretty easy to check online these days. Which is pretty excellent. There are also many books and magazines.
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not just step-parents who don’t know. Parents get help with this also. Go to any parenting forum and you’ll see parents asking when do kids lose their teeth, sleep through the night, stop sneaking into mom and dad’s bed, sneaking out as teens, lying and other stuff too.
It’s okay not to know. If you are curious … it’s also okay to ask. What I’m offering here as a tip is that just maybe consider that the way your step kids are behaving might be totally normal for their age.
I am also incredibly thankful for all the adults along the way including my husband, his former wife and all the coaches, teachers, doctors and books that helped me along my journey. I’m happy to help you in your journey as well.