One of the disservices which ancient fairy tales have done to the cause of modern life is to place the positions of stepmother and stepfather in disrepute.
In the popular belief, the typical stepparent is often a person of vicious temperament who treats her stepchildren brutally. In fact, however, stepparents often provide their stepchildren with wholesome care and affection which natural parents sometimes fail to give.
In homes broken by the death of a parent, the possibility that the survivor may remarry and thus give the children the guidance of a second father or mother should not be overlooked.
When a widower with children marries a widow with children, the result–surprising to some pessimists–is often a truly stable home, steeped in religious values, which spreads its benefits to every member of the household.
Sometimes, however, it is difficult to achieve satisfactory adjustments between the two parents in such a marriage, between each parent and his or her stepchildren, and among the stepchildren themselves.
To make such a marriage work for the benefit of both adults and children, the parents in particular must exercise more patience, tolerance and humility than might be required in a union of two childless persons.
For instance, loyalties to the lost parents have been established. Most family units have different standards of conduct and different ways of doing things. Through trial and error and an intimate knowledge of their own children, the different parents may have adopted different techniques of discipline.
Children of the two-family units may be approximately the same age and a natural competitive situation may exist between them. Such factors must be reconciled if a marriage between stepparents is to achieve its greatest mutual benefit.
If the prospective husband and wife recognize the typical problems inherent in marriages of this kind and constructively plan solutions, a harmonious merger will be achieved more readily. Basically, they should work for five key objectives:
- Unity of the new family unit.
Just as husband and wife become one in marriage, so, too, should the separate families. They can be joined together through emphasis upon family prayer, family attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments, and recreation in which all members of the family can participate.
- Uniform rules for all the children.
An agreement between husband and wife on the upbringing of their children is essential to all marriages, but doubly so in a union of stepparents. Unless the adults agree on how to discipline the children, the father’s child will tend to side with him while the mother’s child follows her guidance. As a result, the family will be split in practice.
- A spirit of compromise.
No two families develop the same way of doing things, and often it would be difficult for even an objective viewer to state which way is better.
In his motherless home, one father permitted his preschool children to remain up late at night. He reasoned that they could spend more time with him in the evening and could make up their lost sleep in the morning.
In her fatherless home, however, a mother kept her children on a rigid schedule and required them to complete their night prayers and be in bed by 8:30 P.M.
When the families were united, one procedure obviously had to change. In this case, the father realized that since his children now had a mother, they should follow the schedule best suited for her. Many similar differences must be ironed out in a union of this kind.
- Unqualified love and fairness.
A new stepmother must face the possibility that her new children may reject her at first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty to their natural mother. A new stepfather may face similar rejection.
However, given clear indications of the new parent’s love, the children will respond in time. This response will be made easier if parents treat their own children and their stepchildren with strict equality.
Children are quick to sense favoritism; if they believe that they are being discriminated against, and by one who seeks to replace their departed father or mother, the antagonism may be intensified. This condition probably is more responsible than any other for legendary tales about the cruelty of stepparents.
- Firm discipline.
The average child will be tempted to discover exactly to what extent a new parent means what he says. This experimentation is probably necessary. Few children feel secure unless they clearly understand what they may and may not do with impunity.
A new stepparent must therefore avoid a tendency to be too lenient in disciplining a child. For while kindness is always necessary, firmness is equally so.
The stepchild who breaks a rule should be told why it is necessary to punish him, so that he cannot justifiably conclude that the punishment is unfair.
One parent’s disciplining of a child should be fully upheld by the other parent, of course. Stepchildren need constant confirmation of the fact that mother and father now are in complete unison and are both motivated by love for him and constant concern for his welfare.
Challenges and problems facing a stepparent are usually greater than those which confront natural parents. Yet the rewards are greater too.
For a stepparent can bring love and guidance of a special kind to children who would otherwise be without it; and the love which the children will bestow in return will be a source of comfort throughout the parent’s life.
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Author Mary Reed Newland here draws on her own experiences as the mother of seven to show how the classic Christian principles of sanctity can be translated into terms easily applied to children even to the very young.
Because it’s rooted in experience, not in theory, nothing that Mrs. Newland suggests is impossible or extraordinary. In fact, as you reflect on your experiences with your own children, you’ll quickly agree that hers is an excellent commonsense approach to raising good Catholic children.
Fr. Lawrence Lovasik, the renowned author of The Hidden Power of Kindness, gives faithful Catholics all the essential ingredients of a stable and loving Catholic marriage and family — ingredients that are in danger of being lost in our turbulent age.
Using Scripture and Church teachings in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step format, Fr. Lovasik helps you understand the proper role of the Catholic father and mother and the blessings of family. He shows you how you can secure happiness in marriage, develop the virtues necessary for a successful marriage, raise children in a truly Catholic way, and much more.
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