About the Guest
Parenting is difficult enough when it's your own kids, but throw someone else's into the mix and you may have problems. Marriage and family therapist Ron Deal talks about the joys and challenges of stepparenting.
Parenting is difficult enough when it’s your own kids, but throw someone else’s into the mix and you may have problems.
Ron: I think parents really underestimate the ability of their children to handle the truth; but we do need to be respectful as we present that truth. The fine line is, “Will you turn to criticism when it becomes a personal attack?” That’s when it really begins to weigh heavy on the kids. You know, when I attack your father, living in another home—parents need to understand that kid carries that pain because, “I’m half of Dad.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, April 26th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. What can a husband and wife do to help children in a stepfamily navigate turbulent emotional waters? Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. I have never forgotten a friend of mine. I will call her "Beth". She had been married, had a son—the marriage had not lasted. She had been a single parent for a number of years. Then, she met a guy. This guy was—well, he was wonderful. I was a little suspicious, frankly, of just how wonderful he was. I thought, "She's been pretty lonely for a long time." Not only that, but she wanted to have another baby; and she wasn't getting younger.
Well, the two of them got married. I'll never forget—it didn't take long for her to arrive at work one day, and Beth said to me—she didn't look good. I said, "Are you okay?" She said, "Well, we had a pretty serious disagreement this morning." I said, "What was it about?"
She went on to explain that her new husband had tried to tell her son a few things that he needed to do and had started shouting at him. She said, "I got in the middle, between the two of them. I said, ‘You're not going to talk to my son this way.’" The whole thing just kind of crumbled into everybody going in their own direction, and nobody feeling good about the situation. I thought, "This couple needs someone who can sit down with them and say, 'You have got to start learning some new skills if you're going to make this thing work.'"
Dennis: At our FamilyLife marriage conference, we focus in on giving people biblical skills in knowing how to build a marriage and a family. One of the fastest-growing segments that are attending our FamilyLife marriage conference are those who are stepfamilies—those who find themselves in remarriage situations. I'll tell you—they're eager, Bob, for those skill sets because they've been in the real-life settings where they're afraid that they may again experience the heartache of divorce. Not all, but many who are in stepfamilies, come about it through that route—some through the death of a spouse.
All this week—we've uncovered a resource that we wanted to bring to our listeners. We’re really thrilled to do so because of the specialized needs of stepfamilies. Today, we want to focus on the subject that you brought up, Bob—the subject of step-parenting and how that works its way out in this new family formation.
Ron Deal joins us for a fourth day. Ron, it's been a treat to have you on the broadcast this week and glad to have you on FamilyLife Today.
Ron: Thank you.
Dennis: Ron is a minister, a counselor, and a speaker on the subject of stepfamilies, all across the country—has a seminar that he does. Ron, one of the areas that you find the most relevant, as you teach on this subject, is this one right here. In fact, you break down parenting into three areas: parenting, step-parenting, and co-parenting. Now, you've got to help me, what's a co-parent?
Ron: It's complicated; isn't it?
Dennis: It is.
Ron: Co-parents are ex-spouses or the biological parents of the children. In other words, if there has been a divorce situation, the children are moving back and forth between two homes. You are no longer married to your former spouse. If you were never married, you're not in that situation with them; but you do have an ongoing parenting relationship with them.
The way we like to say it is there's no such thing as ex-parents. There are only ex-spouses. So, you're forever tied through the children. You have to work together; otherwise, the children can divide and conquer as they move back and forth between homes—just like they could within your home.
Bob: Yes, and I don't know in what order we want to go through parenting—step-parenting or co-parenting—but as you've addressed the co-parenting issue right here—we get letters all the time, Dennis, from people who say, "Here is my situation. I've come to Christ. We're trying to raise our children in a godly, Christian environment. We've got rules and things that our kids can't do; and then, they go visit Mom or Dad on the weekend."
Dennis: “He's living with a girlfriend”—
Bob: “They're watching R-rated movies”—
Dennis: —“drinking, doing drugs”—
Ron: It's one of the most frustrating issues that I find, whether we're talking about people that are still in single-parent years or whether they're in stepfamilies. The other household has a tremendous influence on the kids; and they ask the question, "What can we do about it?"
Here is my answer—first, and foremost, please accept and acknowledge that you do not control what goes on in that other home. The reason I say that is because, under the guise of being concerned, there's a lot of ex-spouses that are still trying to control their ex-. They're still trying to tell them what to do, and they've been divorced for years. You've got to understand that divorce means you lose your right to influence the other person. That's one of the unfortunate results of divorce.
Dennis: Yes; but I can hear a single-parent mom or a woman who is in a stepfamily, right now, going, "But you do not know what my son is walking off into with his stepdad. You're not telling me to just let him go off into that situation. God's given me responsibility to protect him from evil."
Ron: Well, let's assume, and let's say, first of all, we're not talking about abuse situations. We're not talking about extreme situations, where they're walking into abuse. In non-abuse situations—what I'm trying to say is, “It's important for the children to keep their relationships alive with the biological parents, even if—and this is so difficult—but even if there is a negative influence.” What you've got to do is—you've got to influence your kids towards Christ when they are in your home and do everything you can to influence them while they are in your home.
Bob: Let's say you've got an 11-year-old or a 12-year-old who is going over to Dad's. Dad gives him a lot of freedom—no restrictions—lets him play Nintendo® all weekend long, if he wants to. Back home, he can only play for half an hour a day; and that's after his homework is done. All of a sudden, it's regulated. She's thinking, "He's going to hit 13 or 14. He's going to say, 'I want to go live with Dad.'" How does she protect herself from that reality and keep him from wandering off to a full-time situation with Dad?
Ron: Well, first of all, she can't keep him. I'm sorry. I hate to say it, but you lose control of certain things when children are moving back and forth in different homes. What she needs to try to do is—she needs to try to influence her children. She should not come down to Dad's level. I think that's a big mistake that people make. "Maybe, I need to lower my standards. Maybe, I need to be more fun. Maybe, we need to spend more money on the kids,” so that they—in effect—we're competing for their loyalty; and, “Somehow I can keep them in the fold that way." It doesn't work.
Kids grow to respect parents who maintain their boundaries. Over time, kids will probably try out the values of the other home, at some point in time. Sometimes they don't; but if they do, you know, that's a prodigal time. It's very, very difficult; and you've got to continue to pray for your kids. But most of the time, in the long run, they have a tendency to come back to where the stability is—back to where truth is.
Dennis: You know, in that situation, the verses I'm about to read here are very difficult to choke down; but it's the truth of God's Word. Peter writes in 1 Peter, Chapter 3, verse 9, "...not returning evil for evil or insult for insult but giving a blessing instead." It goes on to talk about, in the next few verses, of "refraining your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile."
If I were in that situation, the hardest thing for me to do would be to remain silent about the former spouse. It would be so easy to take them on—to get so angry at the disrespect for your own belief and your faith. Then, in addition to that, there's the context out of which the divorce occurred.
Ron: The truth is the truth; but when it comes to, "If I can shove this truth down your throat and make you choose this over your biological parent," it's a losing game. That is just something parents need to understand. They need to influence, they need to teach, they need to train, but they cannot force loyalties. It just doesn't work. It backfires every time. So, in effect, you're giving the kids the opportunity to choose truth.
Bob: So, what do you do, then, as you talk about your ex-spouse to his son or to her daughter? You may find yourself wanting to, at one level say, “You know, there were legitimate reasons why Mom and Dad are no longer together.” You don’t want to defame or slander the other person; but if you make it sound like, “Your Dad really is a wonderful guy,” there’s going to be a child there going, “Well, so how come the two of you aren’t together anymore?”
Ron: Well, I think you can talk about the truth of what happened. As children grow, you can give them more and more information about the past and what the relationships are. I think we can really be honest with our kids. I think parents really underestimate the ability of their children to handle the truth; but we do need to be respectful as we present that truth.
The minute you—the fine line is, “Will you turn to criticism when it becomes a personal attack?” That’s when it really begins to weigh heavy on the kids. Parents don’t understand that either. When I attack your father, living in another home—parents need to understand that kid carries that pain because, “I’m half of Dad.”
Dennis: You know, as you were talking, it's occurred to me that we've focused on the co-parent—who is the renegade, who is the evil co-parent, who is trying to pollute the soul of a son or a daughter. I would think the vast majority of those who are co-parents, even coming out of a divorce, are those who are cooperating co-parents who want to do what's right by the son or the daughter. What are some principles of working with a co-parent who really would like to see that young lad or that young lady become all that God intended?
Ron: The goal in co-parenting is to contain whatever hostility or conflict exists—to contain that—so that, “We can work together, as a team, on behalf of our children.”
Dennis: You’re speaking about the divorce at this point.
Ron: Exactly. What we’re saying is, “The marriage is over, but the parenting continues. So, how do we do parenting? How are we going to do it effectively for our kids?” A couple of ideas—one thing would be to meet on a regular basis. Some co-parents can stand to do that once a month—some can do it every week; but I think twice a month, once a month—have a business meeting. Sit down at the table, or do it on the phone, or do it by e-mail, if you really are not able to talk to one another in a healthy way.
There are lots of co-parents who can sit down at a table and say, "Here is what's going on with Susie. School is going like this, and we're struggling with this subject. The teachers are telling me that she probably ought to work a little bit more at home. We're trying to do this in our home. What do you think you might be able to do in your home?" The two are cooperating on behalf of the children. It's really a very nice situation when that occurs. The term that we like to use is “cooperative colleagues”. “We’re still cooperating for these kids.”
By the way, rules don’t have to be the same. You know, my parents have been missionaries to Kenya every year for the last 15 years. They get on a plane, they fly to Kenya, and they get off the plane. The customs, and rituals, and traditions are entirely different. You drive on the left side of the road, for crying out loud! I got to go over there 15 years ago, and it takes a little getting used to. But then you come back to the United States, you have to switch back. My dad came back one year and started driving on the left side of the road in Oklahoma City and couldn’t figure out why the traffic was honking. Then, he figured out, “I’m the idiot. I have to switch back.”
Well, kids are moving back and forth between homes. Even though the rituals are different, the rules are different, the customs are different, it has a different personality to this home compared to the other home—they can make the switch. There’s always an adjustment period; but if the rules are consistent, kids can do really well.
Dennis: You know, there is something you touched on, and I want to put a double underline and an exclamation point beside. That's where the wife is dealing with her former husband. There is cause there for her to have been offended or the cause of the divorce left a reproach, where she needs to forgive him; and he needs to forgive her. She's not responsible for his lack of forgiveness of her, but she is responsible for her lack of forgiveness of her former spouse. If they're going to get together, whether by email, by phone, or in person, they're going to have to have a civil relationship where all the accounts have been settled.
Ron: And her children need her to forgive.
Dennis: Bingo! If she hasn't forgiven, I promise you, her children and, as far as that goes, her stepchildren will know that she has bitterness or a lack of a forgiving heart. It's very important, I think, in the process of setting up this relationship with a co-parent, to make sure, as far as it depends upon you, “to be at peace with all men.”
Now, if that person won't forgive you, refuses to forgive you, refuses to settle the account—then, that's their responsibility. But you need to pursue that and seek to make sure that forgiveness has been requested and sought.
Bob: I have to ask you—I don't know how often this happens—but let's say you've arranged for one of these monthly business meetings—that you talked about. About the third time you show up for one of these—and you sit down across the table from your former wife, your former husband, and you look up—and she's really looking pretty today.
Ron: Hmm, yes.
Bob: And you start to talk about some things related to your son, and you're both so proud of him. Something happened in school and, all of a sudden, there's a stirring.
Dennis: And especially if things aren't going so well back at the ranch with—
Bob: —with your new wife.
Ron: I think that's fairly common—to have leftover feelings of fondness and love for the person that you're sitting across the table with. The thing that people have to remember is that the marriage is over. We do not cross into personal territory with one another anymore. It's done.
That is so important because when your ex-spouse calls and says, "You know, the screen door on the back is kind of off. The kids are going in and out. Could you come over and fix it?" I've had a lot of new wives call and say, "My husband keeps going over and taking care of her tasks at the house with his ex-spouse. Should he be doing that?" The answer is absolutely, “No! That is not a parent issue.” If it's a parent issue, then you do everything you can to cooperate with that ex-; but if it is a marital issue, a romance issue, or a help issue—no, that's personal.
You say—you quietly and politely say to your ex-, "I'm sorry. I appreciate the invitation. I know I've done some of those things for you in the past. I don't think it is right for me to do that anymore."
Dennis: I've counseled people in that situation. I think it's very important to have some clear boundaries in place. I wouldn’t want to encourage two former spouses to meet, alone together, to talk about the needs of their children.
Ron: Oftentimes this happens on the phone. Really, that's one of the best ways of doing it because it helps to just keep that boundary where it needs to be. You can do a lot of business on the phone. I'm amazed at how many co-parents can do good business over e-mail, but you can get it done.
Dennis: You know, speaking of healthy relationships, let's talk about one other dimension of the co-parent—and that's the grandparents. You know, I get into this thing—and it’s like the stepfamily—it is a bowl of spaghetti!
Ron: It’s complicated.
Dennis: It is incredible! What encouragement would you give to a biological parent in dealing with the co-parent and their grandparents?
Bob: One of the six possible grandparents the child has now; right?
Ron: Yes. I guess we should call them ex-grandparents, or ex-in-laws maybe would be the way to say it. Bonds for children are very, very important. Anything you can do to set aside your personal needs and wants—remember—the phrase I like to use is, "It's all about the children." What you want doesn’t matter anymore. If it’s good for them to be with your ex-spouse’s parents—their grandparents—then you make the time.
Dennis: Okay. What if it’s not good for them to be with them?
Ron: Well, again, it’s kind of the same situation as dealing with the ex-spouse’s home. You try to influence the kids when they’re in your home. You really don’t have any control over how much time they spend with their grandparents. They can go over to Dad’s house, and Dad can just drop them off at the grandparents’ house, which happens pretty frequently. You wish they were with their father, but they’re not. They’re with his parents. You don’t have any control over that.
Dennis: Well, I can hear a mom saying, “Yes, I do have control over taking them directly to the grandparents’ house.”
Ron: Well, that’s true. That would be an issue that you would have to talk to your ex-spouse about. Most of the recourse that biological parents have regarding the children and what's going on in the other homes or with grandparents, comes down to that co-parent relationship. That's why it's so important to get to a place where you're trying to work together.
You know, some of the other terms we use for ex-spouses are "angry associates" and "fiery foes". They argue, and they're conflictual all the time. If that's the kind of relationship you have with them, then how are you going to have any influence over what goes on in the other home? You won't. That's why it behooves us to set aside our personal agendas, to work on forgiveness, to resolve our personal emotional issues so that we can find a way to do the best business with that person we can.
Dennis: You know, Ron, you have done a wonderful job here, with Bob and me firing hardballs at you. I feel like Bob and I have become a duo Chris Matthews on NBC’s Hardball here. But as you were talking—I just, in my gut—I feel like we have just finished the fourth program of a giant apologetic—a giant defense—for why you need to make your marriage work.
It's why Malachi, Chapter 2, verse16, is true, "For I hate divorce." Now, we've said on the broadcast, on numerous occasions, “A stepfamily is not only forged by divorce; there is the death of a spouse. There is also the birth of a child out of wedlock; but many stepfamilies today are being formed out of a divorce.”
Bob: We've also said many times that verse does not say, "I hate divorcees," or, "I hate stepfamilies."
Dennis: Right; and we have tremendous compassion—I think that's what these broadcasts are all about. But as I listen to the complexities—if you are the person, listening to this broadcast right now, who has been thinking, even beginning to cultivate the thought of divorcing your spouse—find a way to make your marriage work! Think about what you are going to create.
And we've made it clear God visits people in their stepfamily. I mean, He delights in broken situations—of redeeming people's lives—but you know what? He doesn't want you to enter into those broken situations. He wants you to take the marriage you are in today and make it work.
Ron: That's exactly right.
Bob: And I think the message that we’ve tried to make clear here on FamilyLife Today is that the Gospel is powerful to make whatever your situation is work. Two people, who will go before God and humbly submit themselves to Him and to His Word—there’s hope for reconciliation—whether it’s a first marriage, second marriage, or third marriage. Whatever situation you’re in, God can do that kind of a redeeming work.
Ron, I know your desire to help stepfamilies—writing the book, The Smart Stepfamily; the DVD series that’s for small groups; the book, The Smart Stepdad; you co-wrote a book called The Smart Stepmom; and you’ve got other resources. Your desire here is to help couples find the help and hope that they need so that the marriage they’re in is the marriage that they’ll be in for the rest of their lives.
That’s one of the reasons that we’re excited, here at FamilyLife, that Ron is now a part of the team—that The Smart Stepfamily work that he’s been doing for years is now a part of what FamilyLife is doing. In fact, we had a meeting, not long ago, to brainstorm new resources and new strategies for how we can help strengthen folks who are in a remarriage situation—how we can apply the Gospel in those situations and those settings. We’ll have more to say about that in the months to come.
In the meantime, if folks are interested in the books that you’ve written or some of the articles that we have on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, go online and you can order resources from us; or look through the extensive list of articles that Ron has written—that we’ve got posted. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also call if you’d like more information about the resources we have: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
And we need to say a quick word of thanks to those of you who support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. As we work to try to develop new resources and strategies for step-families, your donations in support of this ministry, not only go to help cover the production and syndication costs for this radio program and keeping things posted on the web, but you also help us be able to think in some new directions. We appreciate that financial support.
This week, if you can make a donation of any amount, we would love to send you a copy of Dennis Rainey’s brand-new book, Aggressive Girls, Clueless Boys: 7 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son. In addition to that, we’d like to send you a copy of Dennis’ book, Interviewing Your Daughter’s Date—both of these books designed to help you as your children go through their teenage years.
To make a donation online, go to FamilyLifeToday.com, click the button that says, “I Care”, and fill out the online donation form. Or if it’s easier, just call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone; and when you do, say, “I’d like those books they were talking about on the radio—the ones about teenagers.” We’ll be happy to send those out to you. Again, we appreciate your partnership with us and your support of this ministry.
And, tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with Ron Deal. We’re talking all this week about stepfamilies. Hope you can tune in tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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