Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What About Stepdads?

A press release from the Council on Contemporary Families sets the facts straight about stepdads. Here's what they have to say:
Stepdads are fathers too:

* About 17 percent of America's children live in stepfamily households.

* There are five times as many stepfathers as stepmothers.

* More than 40 percent of all marriages are remarriages, and one-third of all marriages in America bring a stepfamily into existence.

* More than half of Americans today have been, are now, or will eventually be in some form of stepfamily during their lives.

Stepfamilies not new: Far from being non-traditional, stepfamilies were until recently one of the most common family forms in history, due to higher mortality rates in the past. The United States has many notable stepfathers. George Washington, the father of our country, was a stepfather to Martha's children. Dr. Seuss was a stepfather, as was the famous baby doctor, Dr. Spock. Meriwether Lewis, the great explorer, also had a stepfather, as did Booker T. Washington. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford had stepfathers who adopted them.

Myth of the Bad Stepdad: Yet stepfathers today, unlike the past, get little respect. In fact, stories about "bad" stepfathers circulate so widely that a prominent sociologist and social commentator recently claimed that a woman with children who remarries is committing child abuse! This stunning misuse of social science research is based upon studies that lumped together boyfriends, uncles, grandfathers, and friends of the mother under the category of "stepfather" and found that such men were more likely than the biological father to abuse children. If we limit the category of "stepfather" to those men who have married the mother of their stepchildren, there is little difference between biological fathers and stepfathers in propensity toward child abuse.

Lack of Support for Stepfathers: Most stepfathers provide substantial financial and emotional support for their stepchildren, yet our society offers them little support for doing so. In fact, stepfathers have no rights regarding their stepchildren. Unless they adopt them, stepfathers are considered "legal strangers" to their stepchildren. They cannot legally sign them into the emergency wards of hospitals, they often cannot visit a stepchild in the intensive care unit of a hospital because they are not considered "immediate family" (although they are "allowed" to pay the hospital bills), and they cannot have access to school records of their stepchildren, even if they are the ones helping with the homework every evening.

For kids, loving both Dad and Stepdad is not an either/or issue: Children, especially adolescents, benefit from having close relationships with both their stepfather and their father. Right now this happens about 25% of the time. 35% of the time, youth have a close relationship with their stepfather rather than their father-- and 16% of the time it is the other way around. Sadly, 25% of the time, teens in stepfamilies have neither a close relationship with their stepfather or father. Supporting stepfathers and stepfatherhood is good for families: young people need
all the fathering that they can get.

Being a Stepfather takes extra work: Although studies show that a good relationship with a stepfather is a protective factor for children, very few of us think about the patience and hard work that it takes for stepfathers to win their stepchildren's trust. Stepdads must walk the fine line of being a parental figure in the family without trying to replace the children's biological dad. Even if the biological father has been irresponsible and neglectful, a successful stepfather bite his tongue and does not try to take the father's place. Effective stepfathers develop good relationships with their stepchildren the same way they would develop a relationship with a potential friend -- except that unlike with most friends, they put aside their hurt feelings when their overtures are rejected and make a fresh start at trying to get acquainted every day, for as long as it takes. They spend one-on-one time with the stepchild, especially early in the relationship. And they resist any pressure to "act like a father" when is comes to being the disciplinarian, recognizing that this is a job for the children's mother. Successful stepfathers let the stepchildren choose the pace at which the friendship develops. Loving their stepchildren, they understand that it takes time for their stepchildren to reciprocate.

The best stepfathers are masters at living with delayed gratification. But even the most patient master needs a little appreciation every once in a while. So if you know a stepfather this Father's Day, don't put off any longer telling him how much you value his efforts.

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