The Role of a Stepdad
About the Guest
Stepparenting isn't for the cowardly. Ron Deal, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in stepfamilies, gives insight into the stepdad's role in the family. Hear him tell stepdads positive ways to impact their new families and how to avoid causing division.
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Ron Deal gives insight into the stepdad’s role in the family. Hear him tell stepdads positive ways to impact their new families and how to avoid causing division.
The Role of a Stepdad
Bob: Being a wise stepdad requires a whole different skill set than being a drill sergeant. That’s the counsel that Ron Deal passed along to one new stepdad not long ago.
Ron: The new husband—the future stepdad—is an ex-Marine. He has no children / he’s never been married before. He doesn’t really know how hard family life is. He’s marrying a woman who has three children. He calls her on the phone, and they were talking about a few things; and he said, “Hey, regarding the kids and parenting, just tell your kids that when you and I get married, the Marines have landed.”
Ron: Alright? Well, what happened was—he came in and the Marines landed. He made the rules. He started barking. He expected people to jump when he said, “Jump.” And eventually, it just began to really create a whole lot of stress in the marriage.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 13th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
It’s not just stepchildren who have to make an adjustment when a stepfamily is blended. Stepmoms and dads have to make some adjustments as well. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, there’s a passage in the Old Testament that—there are just certain situations that, whenever they come up, I find myself gravitating toward these few verses in Isaiah 61. I think what we’re talking about today—as we talk about stepparenting / about stepdads in particular—I just think it helps to start the program with these words from the Prophet Isaiah. He’s talking about the coming of the Messiah.
He says one of the things that will happen when the Messiah comes is that He will grant those who mourn in Zion—He will give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.
I just think it’s good to know that God’s ministry in our lives is a ministry of restoration / a ministry of reconciliation—a ministry, where we can look at the ashes that we’ve made and God looks at them and says: “Watch this. I can make something really beautiful out of this.”
Dennis: You know, Bob, I’m glad you shared that passage, because it just reminds me of something I said at a Weekend to Remember® that I spoke at. I stood in front of the audience and I said: “We’re all broken.
Dennis: “Look at me. We’re all a mess!” This could be called Broken Life Today. [Laughter]
Bob: I think the ratings might go down a little bit, but—
Dennis: Well, it might. It might, you know; but families are broken.
We’re not in heaven / we’re on earth. And until we do get to heaven, they’re made up of people who are in need of what you just read about—redemption and about restoration. It’s interesting—that the way this life is set up, God has given us His Spirit to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and He uses families and stepfamilies to perfect His image in our lives.
Bob: Well, the reason we bring it up and that you’re on your soapbox on this is because of the subject we’re talking about. We just have to acknowledge that a stepfamily is something that starts off from brokenness, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t do something beautiful in the midst of it.
Dennis: A recent Pew Research poll found that 50 percent of all children will have a stepparent at some point in their lifetime.
Bob: And here’s the thing that makes that interesting—most stepfamilies I know have had this experience.
Before they became a stepfamily, those kids just thought this new guy was great: “Mom, we really like him. He’s so much fun. He takes us to the ballgames. He buys the cotton candy. Yes; we want you to marry him.”
Dennis: Well, that’s because his role at that point was entertainer—
Bob: —and to court—
Dennis: Yes; and he’s winning the heart of their mother, at that point, and their hearts as well.
Bob: But two weeks later, when he’s the disciplinarian, all of a sudden, they don’t like this guy so much: “Mom, why’d you marry him?” and “We don’t want him around the house!”
Dennis: I can’t imagine a more challenging assignment in a family. Truthfully, I really can’t. Well, I want to introduce Ron Deal to our audience. Ron, welcome back.
Ron: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Dennis: He is an author / a speaker. He has written a number of books. The one we’re talking about today is called The Smart Stepdad. We’re talking to both the moms in the audience and the stepdads in the audience.
Now, you said to me, Ron, before we came in here, that one of the big issues for a stepdad—and as far as that goes, for the mom of the family—is the confusion over roles.
Ron: Yes; yes.
Dennis: Unpack what you mean there.
Ron: Well, this stepdad went to a FamilyLife marriage conference and he heard a lot of incredible speakers. And one of the things they talked about is the role of men—the role of a father / the role of a husband in the home. He was inspired to see that he was—he needed to be somebody who would initiate spiritual things for the family / that he would set them on a path that would lead them towards God.
Dennis: He was going to be the spiritual leader / the servant of the family.
Ron: He was going to be the servant leader of the family, and he’s inspired to go home and do that. He goes home, and he begins to take that sort of initiative. What he begins to experience from the children, though, is resistance; because they’re looking at him like: “Okay; wait a minute. This is not your territory. What are you doing here? I’ve got a dad; thank you very much.”
Or he experiences some frowns from his wife, who later comes to him and says: “Honey, I appreciate what you’re doing; but that’s not the way I’ve done it with my kids for the last 15 years,” or “…9 years,” or “…6 years,” or “…” She’s very used to—coming out of the single-parent years—being the only authority in the kids’ lives, and making decisions, and going with it. They’ve got their patterns pretty well set.
He didn’t realize it, but he’s kind of creating new rules and new expectations from the children regarding behavior. He’s just trying to take initiative and do good things. He’s really trying to be a really good father. And therein lies the bind for him, because sometimes being the good father is not the right step to make—it’s being a good stepdad / being a smart stepdad. He’ll work within the power structure that is with his wife in order to take the initiative.
Bob: So, the job description for biological father and the job description for stepfather are not the same job description.
Ron: I would say the job descriptions are very similar, but the methods and the strategies are different.
Dennis: Yes; the execution.
Ron: The execution is what is different. He can still be the servant leader. He can still be the initiator in the family. He can still say: “No / nope; we’re going to make these decisions about what TV shows we watch,” and “…about what activities we involve ourselves in,” “…how we spend our money, because we’re going to be good stewards. We’re going to follow what God has called upon us to do.”
But when it comes time to make new rules—for example, about children, and expectations, and behavior—he’s going to recognize that his role—he doesn’t have much relational equity with the children, especially in the early phases of the blended family. He’s going to recognize the limitations of his role and say: “Honey, okay; you and I are now in agreement that this is where we need to go; but you need to be the one who brings that to the kids,” because mom has that relational equity. She has enough in the bank with her own children.
Bob: They can’t say to her, “You’re not my mom.”
Ron: Exactly! There’s no trump card with mom. Again, he is taking initiative—he is making sure that the family is moving in a direction that will usher them into the throne room of God—but it might not be him who delivers the message to the children. It might be mom who does that. He’s working through the power structure.
Dennis: Okay; so here’s my question—I want to get to what he should do. Are there some things he ought not to do? I mean, some big-time cautions you would say to him: “Don’t do this, for goodness sakes,” / “Don’t say that.”
Ron: I would say: “Don’t make unilateral decisions. I mean, you have to talk to mom / you have to collaborate with mom.” And of course, I think you guys would say a biological dad, in a biological home, should not make just drastic unilateral decisions—it’s a collaborative environment—but a stepdad especially needs to do that.
Dennis: And the kids need to know it was a collaborative effort.
Ron: Absolutely. And that’s mom’s part of this process as she’s constantly working to create an expectation of respect for him—to communicate to her children: “Yes; he’s not your father, but he’s my husband. He and I, together, are running this household at this point in time. You’re not going to talk to him that way, young man.”
She corrects her children, and what that does is—it elevates his status in their eyes.
If mom isn’t right there, communicating: “Hey, this guy—he can stand with me. He counts. You need to listen to him.” If she’s not doing that—if she’s inadvertently, or on purpose—especially on purpose—it’s really difficult—she’s undercutting him with the children. Just think about what that would do to a man’s spirit.
Dennis: No doubt about it. It would seem to me that a man would also struggle with the issue of authority. At some point, he’s going to want to play the trump card, “I’m the dad around here.”
Ron: Especially if, Dennis, he is a dad. If he’s a biological father of his own children—
Ron: —and he knows what it is to be able to be that authority and to speak and say: “Nobody’s arguing. This is the way it’s going to be,” it is such a confusing place to be—to be in another household, going: “Wow! I can’t do that here.”
Dennis: So, what does he do with that card? Hold it in his hand?
Ron: He holds it. He bites his lip / he backs off—he says: “Honey, come here. We need to have a powwow.”
He and his wife go into the back room. They try to get things squared there first—always the marriage first / always decide it there—gain that collaborative environment / gain that support from your wife—then go back and deal with kids.
Dennis: Refuse to allow your children to divide you.
Ron: Absolutely; absolutely.
Bob: And when the child does say: “I hate you. You’re not my dad.” Is there a good response to that child?
Ron: Yes; I think the response is basically this: “You’re right. I’m not. However, I’m the man in the house right now, and your mom and I …” See? Hear the position of unity? “Your mom and I have decided you have to go clean your room,” “…you have to go out and take out the trash,” and “…you have to do this,” and “…you need to be in at this certain time. Your mom and I have decided that this is the way it’s going to be.”
Let me tell you a story. I had a couple call me one time. They were mentor couples. They had just talked to this young couple that was getting married, and they were about two months away from the wedding.
Here’s the scenario: the new husband—the future stepdad—is an ex-Marine. He has no children / he’s never been married before. He didn’t really know how hard family life is. He’s marrying a woman who has three children. He calls her on the phone, and they were talking about a few things; and he said, “Hey, regarding the kids and parenting, just tell your kids that when you and I get married, the Marines have landed.”
Ron: Alright? So, his fiancée calls her mentor couple and says: “What do I do? He’s telling me he’s going to come in—he’s going to run the show / he’s going to be the top dog—and I don’t—what do I do about that?”
Dennis: And he’s declaring war—sounds like. [Laughter]
Ron: He’s declaring war. You know: “Beaches of Normandy, here we come!” So, the mentor couple called me and said: “What do we tell them? What do we do?” Well, I kind of talked them through some of these very things.
Here’s what I want you to know—two years later, I was speaking at a conference. A woman came up to me and she said, “You just told a story about ‘The Marines have landed.’” I said, “Yes; that’s how not to do it”; and she said: “Well, that’s me. My mentors called you about my future marriage.”
Ron: And I said, “So what happened?” Well, what happened was—he came in, and the Marines landed—he made the rules / he started barking. He expected people to jump when he said, “Jump.” The kids, obviously, stood in opposition to that. His wife—desperately wanting to support his new role—wanting the kids to like him / wanting to kind of help connect them and build bridges—but at the same time, she couldn’t deal with his hostility / she couldn’t feel good about that. She found herself kind of defending the kids and trying to speak for them. Eventually, it just began to really create a whole lot of stress in the marriage.
I said, “Okay; so what happened?” She said: “Well, the first two years we just did that. We fought. It was ugly.” “And then what happened?” I said. She said: “Well, he finally came to me one day and he said he finally dug into some of your material, and he realized that he had made a mistake. He came to me and he apologized.” I said, “Wow!” And then, she said, “He went to my kids, and he apologized.”
I said: “Wow!! How’s that going?” She said: “Well, they’re healing. It’s been about six months, and things are definitely getting better; but he had to back way off.”
Now, here’s the point—he had to back way off from trying to be that authority figure who just demands that position.
Dennis: The troops—the troops had to leave.
Ron: The troops had to leave, but listen to this—she said, “And when he did, I realized that I had backed off trying to counterbalance him. I wasn’t being the authority I needed to be—I wasn’t elevating his status in my kids’ eyes.” She said, “I had to step up.” And I said, “That’s exactly it.”
And if we could write the prescription for somebody who is just starting out, that’s what we would say: “The biological mom has the relational equity with her kids to change rules, to make things happen, and to elevate the status of her husband in their eyes. He needs to tread lightly. He needs to come in and get to know them, build a relationship, and establish himself as a man they can trust.”
And when they trust him, Dennis, then they’ll let him in deeper. And then he can take on more and more of an active, engaged servant leader in the home; but it’s a role that he has to grow into with the kids.
Dennis: It’s a dance; isn’t it?
Ron: It’s a dance.
Bob: As you’re describing this, there’s kind of a fundamental, core concept that I’m going to throw out here that I don’t think a lot of blended couples think about; but they really need to wrestle with this. If they can’t agree with what I’m about to say, then they may need to step back and decide, “Should we really consider a blended marriage?” And that is this: “In a blended relationship, the relationship between the husband and the wife ultimately trumps the relationship between the parent and the biological children.”
Ron: That’s right.
Bob: And if you can’t get there, then you have no business blending a family.
Ron: You hope that it never comes to a “Which would you choose?” kind of a scenario; but at some point, the marriage really has to be the foundation.
In order for that to happen, the biological parent—in this case, the biological mom—has to be willing to do some hard work with her kids—to be willing to say, “Look; I know you guys want me staying here, but I need to go out on a date with him.” That’s a strong statement of her commitment, and the solidarity of the marriage, and the stepdad’s importance to the family as a unit. Kids—some kids are just fine and dandy with that. Other kids will battle it, and fight it, and feel displaced, and be anxious and upset about that. You just have to kind of work with it slowly over time. It’s never an “I choose him over you.” It’s: “I choose you both; but at the same time, this marriage is going to last forever.”
Dennis: I love the story that Dr. Dan Allender tells. Now, he’s not a stepfather; but one time, one of his kids asked—if they were in a boat, and the boat capsized / and the kid went in the water and Becky, his wife, went in the water—they asked Dan, “Who would you rescue?”
Dan said, “That’s easy!” He said: “Your mother; and not only would I rescue her, I’d be in the boat, drying her off.”
Ron: [Laughter] Wow.
Dennis: He wanted his child to understand that relationship has to be intact, pre-eminent—obviously, the first relationship being that of Jesus Christ—and both husband and wife / mom and dad submitting to him—but the children are far more secure if they understand, whether they are a blended family or not a blended family, that the mom and dad are committed to one another, no matter what.
Ron: Now, let me tell you something that is really confusing about this; because this is so central to the success of a blended family. Imagine you’re a future stepdad. You’ve met this woman / you’ve fallen in love. You’re dating kind of separate / apart from the kids. Your interaction with them is limited; it grows over time. You’re kind of that fun-loving guy.
Then, you get married; and you transition into real blended family life. One of the things that you notice is very different is that this woman, who seemed to be enthralled and totally focused on you during courtship, all of a sudden, seems to be more of a mother than a wife.
I can’t tell you how many men are really thrown by that. They feel like they got duped. They feel like: “What’s going on here? She seems to be more interested in all the motherly activities and kids, and I’m just kind of the afterthought at that point; but when we were dating, man, she was all about me.”
There are a couple things about that. Dating tends to be unreal anyway. It tends to be kind of fantasy, and we tend to separate coupleness from familyness. So, it inherently moves her heart toward him; and all he sees is her being focused on him. But when she’s at dinner with this guy, she’s still thinking about her kids. Moms are totally always a mom—right?—but he doesn’t necessarily experience her being that way.
But then, when they’re all living together in the house, and she kind of shifts her attention to being mom and caretaking—that can really be disillusioning for this guy. He needs to be careful and not over-judge her / not be quick to say: “Wait a minute. She’s bailed on me. She’s betraying me.” No; I think she’s just doing the hard work of balancing wife and mother roles. But at the same time, this woman needs to understand—
Dennis: Right; right.
Ron: —that she needs to attend to him as her husband. She needs to be in tune with that need that he has and not just totally shift all of her time and energy to the kids.
Dennis: You know, Ron, I’m just listening to you; and I have two thoughts. One is: “If I was a listener, contemplating divorce and thinking about busting up my family, I think I’d go rethink it—
Dennis: —because we’re talking about enormous complexities here if you trade this one in and go get a different one. And we’re talking about things that are going to impact you, your kids, your future—I mean, for generations.
Ron: Yes; if it’s within your power, make that first marriage work.
Dennis: That’s exactly right. But secondly, for those—and it’s not just for those who are blendeds who are listening right now—but for all marriages and families: “Marriage is a spiritual relationship. Yes; it’s physical / yes, it’s relational in terms of two human beings enjoying all the pleasures with one another; but it is a spiritual commitment between two people, and it takes God to make it work. God’s power works best between two broken people, who have come to the conclusion that they are not the center of the universe / but that He is the center of all of life, and of submitting to Him and His Word, and getting busy building your home according to the Scripture.”
Dennis: I don’t know how marriages go the distance otherwise. I literally do not know how two broken, sinful, selfish human beings—
Ron: That’s right.
Dennis: —can live with each other for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. Jesus Christ is the hope of your home.
Bob: I hear you saying that, if a man’s going to be a successful stepdad, he has to make sure, first of all, that his relationship with God is what God designed that to be—that he is connected intimately with God; and then, your relationship—as a husband with your wife—that’s got to be secure and solid as well. If those two things aren’t in place, then trying to be stepfather to your stepchildren, you’re trying to do that from a fragile foundation.
That’s why I think it is good for stepdads to start off with some wise counsel like what you have provided in your book, Ron.
The book is called The Smart Stepdad by Ron Deal. We have copies of it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, to order at FamilyLife Today.com or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website—FamilyLifeToday.com—and our number is 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Let me just say—you may not be a stepdad yourself, but you probably know somebody in your church who is. Maybe you know somebody who is about to get married and become a stepdad. Maybe it’s somebody in your neighborhood or in the office—somebody that you’d like to give a gift to and just say, “I’m cheering for you; praying for you; here for you.” Order a copy of the book, The Smart Stepdad, and pass it on to somebody you know who could benefit from reading Ron’s book.
If you’re interested in helping couples who are stepfamilies—helping them succeed / helping them thrive in your local church or in your community—let me invite you to join Ron Deal, and me, and others. We’re going to be in Nashville, October 26th and 27th, for the 2017 Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. This is a two-day event that’s designed to help people who want to help others. Last year, I think we had three or four hundred people join us out in Colorado Springs—it was a great event. This event has been growing every year, and we’re hoping that you will join hundreds of others with us in Nashville, October 26th and 27th. There is more information, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is early-bird pricing available now. So, find out more and plan to be with us for the 2017 Summit on Stepfamily Ministry.
Let me just say a quick word of thanks to those of you who are faithful friends of this ministry—those of you who are monthly Legacy Partners, who help support this ministry, month in and month out.
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Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about some of the challenges that stepdads face from outside the family—ex-husband relationships. There’s just a lot to consider as you step into the role of being a stepdad. Ron Deal is going to be back with us tomorrow. I hope you can be back with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with 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.
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