Stepfamilies, and the Truth About Cinderella

After their mother died, the little birds started to starve. They would also die, if some other Swallow would not agree to feed them. Here’s what happened. The orphaned birds were placed in the nest of another family, and this mother watched the babies waste away, in the very nest where she fed her own young every day. There are many examples in the animal kingdom of such neglect, and we all know that human beings can be just as bad.

In their book Homicide Martin Daly and Margo Wilson found stepchildren to be at a much greater risk for maltreatment, than children living with biological parents. Toddlers in stepfamilies are forty times as likely to be registered as victims of severe physical abuse, and about seventy times as likely to be murdered. For fatal abuse, they found the risk to a child living with one stepparent and one genetic parent to be about a hundred times higher than it was in a two-genetic parent home. Now here’s the sad part, abusive stepparents usually spare their own children in the same house. That’s the dark side of being in a stepfamily. Ask Cinderella.

How come?

In the big scheme of things, there is no biological advantage in helping the genetic code of some other specimen survive.

Luckily, as thinking animals we humans might be capable of making better decisions than the Swallow. As a matter of fact, Virginia Rutter in Psychology Today presents information that clearly shows children can thrive in effective stepfamilies. She found stepfamilies to have a high rate of success in raising healthy children. In fact, eighty percent of the kids studied came out fine. The stepfamilies actually ended up being more stable than first-marriage families, mostly because second marriages are happier than first marriages. That’s the bright side of being in a stepfamily. Cinderella didn’t know about this.

To become one of those happy stepfamilies might require some work however. First of all, if you know that sadistic, cruel, substance abusing people are going to treat step children poorly, try to avoid them as potential stepparents to your children. You may think this is obvious, but it’s not. Lonely people to want to believe that the abusive person they are dating will not harm their children. It’s simply not true. This is how infants and toddlers end up dying.

Now let’s say that you have met a reasonable person, and you have decided to create a blended family, the most important thing that you can do is to establish a “parenting coalition” among the parents and stepparents in both families. From the beginning it is important to work together in making family decisions. One of the most important is how, and by whom, the children will be disciplined. And on that score the evidence is clear, only the birth parent has the authority to discipline his or her own children.

Virginia Rutter is quick to warn that stepparents cannot interfere with their spouse in parenting. Stepparents need to be involved, that means included in family decisions, but not interfering. It is the responsibility of the biological parent to take charge. The stepparent, even if she is female, has to back off, and let the bio-parent do the monitoring and caretaking of the kids.

The glue that makes it all happen is respect. Both parents must require kids and stepparents to treat each other with respect. Please note that respect and love are two different things. Ms. Rutter states, “no stepparent should be expected to love, or even like a partner’s kids, nor must demands be placed on kids to love a stepparent. A strong couple relationship is necessary to the success of the stepfamily, but it cannot hinge on whether the stepparent likes the kids.”

Cinderella’s wicked stepmother didn’t like her. But if her father had taken responsibility for her care, I bet she would not have been cleaning out all of those fireplaces.

Leo Tolstoy said it well in Anna Karenina,

“All happy families resemble one another, but every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”