Most stepchildren live in two countries; that is, they hold citizenship in two homes and are invested in the quality of life found in both. Parents should do everything they can to help children thrive and enjoy each of their two homes.
Often I’m asked, “What if the rules in my ex’s home are different from the rules in our home?”
My answer? “It all depends on your diplomacy and how cooperative you are as an ambassador.” Let me explain.
Over 23 years ago my wife and I went with my parents to Kenya for a brief missionary effort. I will never forget going on safari in the Masai Mara and seeing lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and hundreds of other wild animals that Americans can only see in a zoo. But what I remember most distinctly was the radical change in culture that we experienced. Clothing was different, social customs seemed odd, the economy and systems of government were unknown to us. We had to learn to drive on the left side of the road. Despite all of these shifts in customs, ritual behaviors, and rules of conduct, we learned to adapt quite quickly.
My parents later returned to Kenya (about 15 times) to coordinate volunteer mission efforts in East Africa. The changes in culture we experienced initially grew more predictable for them, but they always experienced an adjustment period when traveling between countries. One year my father returned to the U.S. and began driving on the left side of the road. The oncoming traffic abruptly reminded him of the change in driving system! Generally speaking, though, my parents adapted to each country as needed.
Children can adjust
There are many parallels for stepchildren. At first, different rules, customs, and expectations between homes requires an extended adjustment. Later, when the territory becomes more familiar, only a brief adjustment time is required. Sometimes children need gentle reminders from their parents about what the rules are (“You may be able to play before homework at your mom’s house, but here the rule is…”). But generally speaking, children can adjust to the many differences rather well.
Can you imagine what travel for my parents would have been like if Kenya and the United States had been at war? Getting on a plane and heading to the “other side” would have been considered treason. An old African proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Divorced parents who fight with each other are trampling on their most prized possession—their children who have to live in both homes.
In his book, Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade, researcher James Bray warns that when one parent speaks negatively about a child’s other biological parent, the child internalizes the comment. In other words, “A child who hears a parent attacked thinks, in some way, he is also being attacked.” A simple comment like, “Your father is late again. He can be so irresponsible,” cuts the child as well as the parent.
Remember the biblical story of the two mothers fighting over a child (1 Kings 3)? Each woman had had a baby, but one accidently smothered hers to death during the night. She tried to take the other woman’s baby as her own. A battle ensued and each woman claimed to be the child’s mother.
No one knew who the living child belonged to, so the women were taken to Solomon for a decision. His ruse judgment to cut the baby in half and give half to each woman revealed the compassion of the true mother; ultimately she was given the child. I’ve long thought that Solomon’s decision was simply making plain what the battling parents were already doing—cutting the child. Ex-spouses and stepparents can do the same if they are not careful.
Are you making a POW swap every other weekend? How often are children trampled? As citizens of two countries, they should be privileged to all the rights, relationships, and responsibilities of each home. Your job is to be at peace with the other country so your children can travel back and forth in love.
For those ministering to stepfamilies:
Most church-based education programs for parents never discuss conflicts and parenting matters that occur between homes. Speak to the teachers of your Bible classes and small groups and encourage them to address these issues. Ron’s free online e-booklet, Parenting After Divorce, can help.