Stepkids and double standard parenting
Can we all please quit pretending that all stepkids and all biological kids in the home can all be parented exactly the same way? It's not that there are double standards; it's that different parenting situations require varying levels of flexibility. Trying to hold ourselves (and our kids/stepkids) to unrealistic expectations only makes stepparenting and blended family life that much harder on all of us.
Stepparenting without double standards
I grew up with two siblings. My older sister and I were parented very similarly, which was very different from how my parents raised my little brother. My sister and I were raised on accountability, health food, and a strict church schedule. My brother was raised on coddling, Froot Loops, and hours upon hours of TV.
I'll never know why my parents raised us with such glaring double standards, but my childhood left me with a fierce drive for equality and fairness in all things that's only compounded by me being a Libra—those damn scales, always seeking balance and justice.
So when I met my future stepdaughter, a 7-year-old girl the same age as my own daughter, it never even occurred to me to parent her differently from my biological kid.
My BD and I welcomed my future SD with open arms, ready to love her and scoop her right into our family. Dan was in, so she was in too. No question. No hesitation.
The problem was, SD didn't want to be scooped. She didn't particularly want us to love her, and she definitely for suresies did NOT want to be parented the way I parented my BD. Not by me, not by anyone. SD wanted her life to go back to normal—a normal that did not include us.
Because I kept believing that I shouldn't stepparent with double standards, I didn't respect my SD's desire to keep me at arm's length. I kept right on attempting to raise my SD the same way I was raising my BD: with love, structure, and accountability. And our relationship only worsened.
A stepmom favoring her own kid over her stepkid
We've all seen Cinderella, so we all know what happens when you spoil your biological children while abusing your stepchildren. Stepmoms particularly come in with chips on our shoulders to NOT be seen as wicked, paranoid we'll be seen as favoring our own kids over our stepkids.
And yet, by treating our stepkids the same as our bio kids, we end up as the wicked stepmonsters (or mean stepdaddies) anyway.
Example: Say Dan & I set the expectation that everyone needs to eat X amount of vegetables at dinner before they can have dessert. No pressure or anything; if you don't like the veggies, you don't have to eat them. But then you won't get ice cream.
Normal parenting, right? And fair. Both girls had this rule.
My bio kid finishes her plate quickly. Dan & I tell her good job on dinner and she gets her dessert, as we said she could.
Meanwhile, my stepdaughter is still sitting at the table picking at her food. She sulks over her plate for so long that she never does eat X amount of vegetables, so she never gets a "good job" from us or any dessert.
Now, in my SD's life pre-stepmom, her dad would've just given her dessert anyway, regardless of how many veggies she ate at dinner. In fact requiring her to eat a decent meal before any dessert ever was a totally alien concept.
So to my stepdaughter's mind, a grouchy-making dinnertime experience was completely my fault, the Wicked Stepmother™ being a big meanie like always. And I was also blatantly spoiling my daughter right in front of my stepdaughter by letting my BD have ice cream while my SD couldn't have any!! (That's what she'd tell her mom, anyway.) God I'm the WORST!!
From my SD's point of view, this would be a clear-cut case of double standard stepparenting, spoiling my daughter while punishing my stepdaughter.
From my point of view, it'd be a clear-cut case of actual parenting, complete with accountability.
Both girls had the exact same rules and expectations going into dinner. Both were made aware of those rules and expectations. No one was "punished"; my stepdaughter, knowing the consequences, chose to not eat her veggies. Totally fine! Again, no one's forcing anyone to eat anything. But then you're not getting dessert.
The only reason all this seemed unfair to SD was because she'd never been held accountable in her damn life. Not till I came along.
Disneyland Dads & divorce-guilt parenting
My husband is a total Disneyland Dad who's been parenting 100% out of guilt since his divorce. As if the normal dad guilt weren't enough, he lived under a constant cloud of fear that SD being unhappy—like… at all, EVER, even a little bit—was going to ramp his ex up to crazier levels of high conflict that could ultimately reduce his custody. (Totally not an unrealistic concern, btw.)
So, seeing his daughter upset over the viciously unfair lack of dessert, he might wonder casually aloud—right in front of his kid—if maybe I am being too hard on my stepdaughter. She could have a little ice cream, couldn't she?
"Well she could," I'd reply, "but then that's unfair to BD—isn't it, SD? Because BD did eat her veggies. And you didn't. So why would you still get dessert?" SD, knowing I'm calling her out accurately, would shift uncomfortably in her chair and look away.
Dan would then back me up in the worst possible way. "Sorry, SD," he'd say with a heavy sigh and sad puppy dog eyes. "Maarit's right. I guess that means no dessert tonight." His tone and body language screamed that he didn't agree one bit with the unfair ruling passed down by the Wicked Stepmother™, but he too was powerless against my evil nature to do a damn thing about it.
Take this example and multiply it times a million little occurrences each and every day and it's a cinch to see how stepparents end up viewed as cruel fairy-tale villains who unfairly spoil their own kids while abusing their stepkids.
Meanwhile, back in real life while all this is happening, we stepparents wonder if we are losing our minds. Because this is parenting, right? I could not be any fairer to my stepdaughter. I am being 100% equal in my parenting to both kids. So why is the response from my stepkid, my husband, and society at large so utterly disproportionate to what is actually happening? Why is stepparenting fairly being held against me like I'm gold medaling in double standards?
When parenting fairly and equitably only increases the tension in your blended family, sometimes stepping back can make a better stepparent-stepkid relationship.
Parenting to different personalities within your blended family
As much as I wanted no double standards in our blended family, attempting to parent my bio kid and my stepkid equally caused deep damage. Especially since Dan kept right on divorce-guilt-parenting SD wherever he could. Even if he'd agree with me in private about how he thought the girls should be parented, in practice he'd never back me up (or he'd fake back me up like in the example above), putting me constantly in the position of fun buster.
Over time, I started questioning my lifetime's worth of beliefs that double standards were an awful thing. Maybe fairness across the board wasn't actually… well, fair. Because when I started looking at my stepparenting decisions in terms of each kid's personality… I started seeming like a real bitch, even to myself.
Look, my kid would eat those veggies either way. She's a great eater, always has been. She'll always be done first at every meal, and she nearly always has a contagiously cheerful, good-sport attitude that makes parenting her absurdly easy. She was also thrilled to have Dan in her life, complete with a new sister, and was happy to be living in a real house and have a dog finally—basically everything she ever wanted.
My stepdaughter's emotional state was not nearly so grounded. Her mother was emotionally and verbally abusive; her dad was her only safe haven, and now I'd come along to threaten that safety. She was never super on board with her dad dating me, and her attitude had only gone downhill after we moved in together and got married. Last but not least, she's always been a picky eater and neither parent raised her with any form of personal accountability.
For my BD, eating veggies before dessert wasn’t a new rule, but even if it had been, she'd have just shrugged it off as no big deal 'cause eating a decent dinner (including veggies) was something she'd have done anyway. The veggies-before-dessert rule wasn't really for her; it was for my SD, whose diet was appalling. But in an effort to "be fair," we were applying those guidelines to both girls.
For my SD, eating veggies before dessert was yet one more stupid rule in a new dictatorship where she always felt like she was in trouble for something and never got her way. In other words, the kid who was supposed to be benefitting from that rule was also the one who was getting hurt by it the most.
So maybe having unilateral rules didn't make sense. Maybe for my SD, as long as she was just making an effort to try new foods (for example), she could still have dessert, even if she wasn't eating as many veggies as BD.
Different personalities require different parenting – you can't parent a crumpler the same way you'd parent a scrapper. You can't parent an enthusiastic omnivore the same way you'd parent a picky eater. Different ages of kids need to be parented differently, just as different stages of emotional development need to be taken into account.
All of these elements play a role in parenting fairly between stepkid and bio kid. The stepparenting goal shouldn't be to apply rigid inflexibility to the entire household, but to level the playing field so your family can blend without tripping on a bunch of gopher holes.
Parenting in a blended family is different from parenting in a traditional family
The ideas we have about "fair" parenting are based on a traditional family model. But we're not traditional families—we're blended families. Blended families don't function with the same dynamics as a traditional family, so why do we expect that the same parenting rules apply?
During the decade or so I've been with Dan, he's gone through a slew of custody schedules: 2/2/3/3, 50/50, even two different long-distance custody splits. Throughout all this, my bio daughter lived with us more or less full-time.
Maybe on 2/2/3/3 or 50/50, we could expect that SD have some basic chores around the house—clean her room, help with dishes, whatever. But when we only saw her once a month? A handful of times a year? What would be the point? We didn't want to spend our severely limited time with SD making her clear the table and load the dishwasher. Screw that. We'd order takeout and watch movies, or we'd load all kids and dogs into the car and go camping for a few days.
While SD was with us, did BD still have her normal schedule and rules and chores? Hell no she did not; we wanted the girls to grow up understanding that family was important. And in our blended family, time together is something we have to work for; we still prioritize that today.
Yet none of this negated my commitment to keep parenting BD with love, structure, and accountability. So I kept parenting my daughter the way I thought she should be parented, and disengaged from parenting my stepdaughter, letting Dan parent her how he felt was best.
Parallel parenting between stepkids and bio kids
Parallel parenting is typically presented as an alternative to co-parenting when the ex is high-conflict. The idea is that you parent how you like in your house, and the other parent parents how they think is best in theirs. Neither parent has any say over what happens in the other home (barring genuine health or safety concerns).
For conflicting parenting styles within the same house, you can apply the same concept. Can't agree on how stepkids vs. bio kids should be parented? No biggie. You parent your kids, I'll parent mine. Not my circus, not my monkeys.
Not that this approach doesn't come with its own challenges. Just like my SD thought my BD getting ice cream felt like an unfair double standard, my own kid felt pretty irritated that none of the rules she had to follow applied to her stepsister. Plus, it was obnoxious how we all turned into Happy Adventure Family the second her stepsister showed up.
To be honest, I was frustrated by those things myself, especially in the early years. I definitely felt for my BD, remembering all too well how infuriating my childhood double standards were. And I was also exasperated as a stepmom—the rules I felt would set my SD up for successful adulthood were constantly ignored, overruled, or bypassed.
Yet the harder I tried to parent my stepdaughter, the worse our relationship got. And trying to make things fair between my stepkid and my bio kid only made me into the permanent bad guy.
Making peace with stepparenting expectations
I had set ideas on what blended family life should be like—I was determined that us being blended didn't make us less of a family. One of the ways I defined "family" was through traditions, which included daily routines and structure. Without those, I worried we were just a jumbled mess of strangers sharing a house.
Only when I stopped trying to force us to become something we weren't and could never be did I start relaxing and enjoying blended family life. With time, I learned to be okay with flexible stepparenting—there were certain expectations of respect, always, but beyond that I practiced going with the flow. I relaxed my parenting philosophy A LOT and took lessons from Dan's… unparenting philosophy.
Our kids are very different humans with very different personalities; even if they'd both been our biological children, their parenting needs would've always been very different. We share a home. We're a family. But despite living together and even being the same age, my stepdaughter and biological daughter have had completely different childhoods and life experiences. They attend different schools and have different friends. Their hobbies, likes, and interests are different. Even the amount of time each one spends with us is different, because they have different custody schedules.
Why did I EVER think we could parent them the exact same way?
Refusing to acknowledge the reality—that blended family life is different—made our lives so much harder than they had to be. I will always parent my stepdaughter differently from my bio daughter because they are different people. AND THAT IS OKAY.
Parenting a stepkid differently from a bio kid is not the same as spoiling one and being mean to the other. It's simply adapting your parenting/ stepparenting to the specific needs of each kid, bio and step alike. No two children will ever share the exact same parenting needs. We need to stop being uncompromising and practice some common sense. Rigidity helps no one.
As you parent your kids—step or bio—remember to focus on the big picture. If "equal" parenting makes your stepkid hate you and increases conflict in your home, is it doing anyone any good? What could your life look like if you stepped back as a stepparent, disengaged from your expectations about fairness and let go of your definitions of double standards?
What if you stepparented from a place of adaptable love and flexibility, keeping the end goal of blending your family as your priority?
Because for me, I eventually realized that everyone eating a particular amount of veggies didn't matter for shit. Us being together as a family, whenever and however we could be—that was all that mattered. Once I stepparented from a place where togetherness was my end goal and my center, our blended family finally fell into place.