Many parents will have heard their kids accuse them of favouring one child over another. It’s presumably made to trigger guilt in the parent and intended to cause hurt, most often when the child’s ego has been bruised. It’ll often be made when the child doesn’t appreciate a punishment that’s been handed down for an infraction, or when they feel you’ve favoured their sibling over them.
I’ve always gone out of my way to treat my kids as fairly and equally as I could. Accusations that I favour one over the other are unfounded in spite of what either might think.
What I wasn’t prepared for in my life as a parent, was how much more challenging the maintenance of this standard would be when I inherited two step-kids; a blessing that came along with my second wife. The opportunities for falling foul of such standards suddenly doubled. The pressure built upon us to ensure not only that I treated my two equally, but also that I treated hers equally too; the same applied for her.
The principle of equality in blended families applies in many more contexts than I’d ever envisaged it might, and these continue to surprise and occasionally torment me as the years go by.
Reward and discipline
First and most obviously, equality is demanded in rewarding and punishing the kids in line with the same standards and expectations of behaviour, discipline and performance at school. This has demanded that in our blended family unit, we unite upon common standards to begin with.
My wife and I shared a common ethos regarding our kids and what we aspired for them to achieve. Nonetheless we’ve had to bridge the gap between our expectations and to reach a common understanding of the standards we expect of them at home and at school.
A further complication has been to ensure that the standards that I have established co-operatively with my ex-wife are also maintained and enforced. She’s my kids’ mother, and co-parents them equally with me on alternate weeks. I’ve had to ensure that in my kids’ eyes, expectations placed upon them haven’t changed as a result of my getting married again and with two step-siblings coming into the family.
It’s a veritable minefield.
Our strategy has been to ensure that reward and praise, as well as inevitable punishment and denial of privileges are given consistently and in line with the highest common denominator of standards. Where one of us may have previously rewarded our child with a treat for passing a test, we are trying now to encourage them all to excel and exceed targets, rather than merely to pass. Where one of us might previously have denied privileges for earning a detention at school, the other might have considered the detention punishment enough. Our united approach ensures that they all receive the same punishment for the same infringement.
The challenges of devising, navigating and enforcing this regime have taken time and effort, but gradually we’ve found equilibrium. Grades seem also to have improved universally, so I guess that’s a good thing!
With the enlarged family unit comes the need to ensure that opportunities are provided equally to each of the kids. It was financially stretching enough when there were two kids who wanted to take part in school trips overseas, study musical instruments and take part in sports clubs; now all four rightly expect the same opportunities as they progress through school.
In later life, there’ll be university education to fund if the youngest three follow in the footsteps of the eldest. There’ll no doubt be four weddings to pay for at some point too.
Provision of opportunity doesn’t just equate to financial outlay, and as big a challenge has been in ensuring that each child gets a fair chance to spend time individually and collectively with their birth-parent as well as within the family unit, together.
Both my wife and I came into our marriage after a number of years as single parents. Our kids were naturally used to having occupied a fair portion of our time, without having to compete for our attention. We’ve gone to great lengths to preserve this, recognising that none of the six of us in the blended unit want to feel like we’re competing for time with anyone else.
My wife will have periods of time alone with her kids, just as I do with mine. We carefully orchestrate time spent in these sub-units, as well as time when we’re all together. There are also times when all the kids are with their respective other parents, giving my wife and I some gratefully-appreciated quality time together.
That kid-free time is certainly welcome, as well as quite a rare luxury for a couple with four kids between us. A significant lesson for me has been that if compromises need to be made anywhere, it’s in me losing out on time with my wife to allow her kids to spend time with her, or mine with me.
This is just another part of putting our kids needs to the fore, but nobody wants the kids to feel marginalised as a result of the blending of families. To counter this risk, if anyone has to compromise, it must be the parents.
As I observe the world in which we live, the main challenges I see for kids today are their growing up in the era of smartphone and social media ubiquity, along with the immensely competitive world that young adults are entering into once they start to carve out a career. These two factors have been significant in shaping the expectations that we have sought to place upon my kids and step-kids alike.
As parents, we can design reward and punishment regimes that seem universally fair. We can provide opportunities to them equally. However, the expectations which we instil in them and encourage them to strive for, will also be key in the process. We feel pressure to ensure that in adult life they’re all equally equipped to deal with whatever the world holds in store for them.
My greatest fear (or one of them at least) is that they buy into the millennial rhetoric that they can have it all if they want it badly enough. Buying into this idea will only serve to lessen their resolve and self-reliance, as much as it will convince them that great things come easily. This message, combined with the influence of artificially constructed images of success that bombard them from social media will serve only to lower their belief in the need for hard work and dedication, should we let them believe it.
For this reason, and even though it won’t win us any popularity contests amongst our kids, we’re trying to enforce for each of them that the real world is tough. Our expectations of them are driven out of a desire for them to achieve what they want and deserve, but to manage their expectations that it won’t come easily.
Such messages aren’t always easy to convey without coming across as a crusher of dreams. I want my kids to understand that a care-free life of riches doesn’t automatically follow within 5-years of leaving school. A career as a top-flight professional sports-person is unlikely unless you’re discovered with unthinkable talent at a very early age, and none of them have been. Setting out to be a YouTuber is not a likely or viable career-path. Becoming an Instagram-influencer won’t happen through habitually scrolling endlessly through your feed or taking selfies.
Such messages are no doubt hard to digest for our kids. We need them to understand though, that for all the ideas that we may decry, there are many other amazing opportunities that they can take and things that they can achieve that lay just the other side of consistent and persistent hard work, commitment, discipline and patience, all of which we encourage.
Affection and Love
Most fundamental for me and my wife is that all our kids grow up feeling loved, secure and able to trust that we’re fully behind them throughout their lives. We’ve each played the long-game in building our places in the lives of each other’s kids. There have been no decrees for my kids to refer to my wife as ‘Mum’ nor for her kids to call me ‘Dad’. Neither of us forces them to hug us, to reciprocate when we say ‘I love you’ or to behave towards us in any way that doesn’t feel comfortable or natural.
We love our kids equally, and bonds have naturally evolved and strengthened as the years have passed. We display our love for each of them individually, for the people that they are and the wonderful traits that each possess. We love them collectively as they are each a vital and appreciated part of our collective brood, our tribe.
My greatest challenge (admitted here for the first time in writing) is in the displays of affection from my teenage son (our only boy) towards his Mum. Like all teens he can be surly and non-communicative. Somewhat paradoxically he frequently also resorts to what I see as displays of clinginess to his mother. I find this difficult to deal with and suppose that it’s a form of jealousy on my part.
I’ve occasionally expressed my feelings on this to my wife, that I see it as unusual for a 14-year-old and wonder if it will cease. I also appreciate that she wants to enjoy feeling like her displays of affection are still wanted by him for as long as he’s willing to tolerate it, and she’s pleased he still reciprocates, which I can understand.
Maybe I’m jealous that he will occasionally link arms or hold her hand when we take a walk as a family, taking my place at her side. Maybe I’m also jealous that my older-teenage daughters seem to have long-since outgrown wanting to do the same with me.
Either way, it’s my issue to overcome, and I’ve no desire for him, or any of our kids to feel like they can’t be affectionate with either of us, nor to think they must compete with either of us for the affection of their parent.
A final word is preserved for the danger that’s ever-present in over-compensating in either reward or punishment towards each others’ kids. I could easily lose the faith of my kids if I were overly lenient towards my step-kids while holding my own to higher standards and punishing them excessively for minor misdemeanours, just to make a point. My step-kids would be similarly and rightly affronted if they felt I deliberately treated them better than my own kids simply to win favour.
Kids are perceptive and will rightly call a parent on this if they feel like they’re being treated more harshly to ease the parent’s conscience regarding step-kids. Mine did on a few occasions in the early days, and it’s a lesson well-learned.
Being deliberately unfair in favour of step-kids is as bad, if not worse than the reverse. Be wary of the lure of doing so, for it can happen unknowingly, particularly at first.
Striving for fairness and equity must be one of the most arduous things to get right in blended families. At first, everyone is on their best behaviour and everything seems new and exciting. All any of us wants to feel within our family, besides love and stability is that we have a fair chance of succeeding, thriving and of being supported.
The classic battle for parents in blended families is not just in striving for equality towards all kids, but in avoiding the pitfall of over-compensating in the opposite direction. We tread the tight-rope of wanting to feel free to praise our own kids as we see fit, without turning things into a ‘mine versus yours’ comparison.
Like most aspects of parenting, and particularly parenting after divorce, I’ve found the best barometer for my actions is always to consider whether my intentions are in the best interests of the kids, first and foremost. If the answer is a strong yes, then I’m likely on the right track. This holds up particularly well as a rule of thumb when striving for equity in the treatment of kids in a blended family.
Give it a try!
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