122: Blending a Family: Where Do I Start?
When we blend two families, what's the goal & how do we get there? Do we focus more on parenting or our marriage? Do I parent my stepchild or build a relationship first? How do we manage a difficult former spouse? Ron Deal answers these questions & more about the critical tasks of parenting in a blended family.
About the Guest
When we blend two families, what’s the goal & how do we get there? Do we focus more on parenting or our marriage? Do I parent my stepchild or build a relationship first? How do we manage a difficult former spouse? Ron Deal answers these questions & more.
122: Blending a Family: Where Do I Start?
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. You know, some of the people who love blended families are in fact ministry leaders. I've spent about 30 years training leaders in understanding stepfamilies and stepfamily ministry.
Well, what you're going to hear in this episode of FamilyLife Blended is a presentation I did at the 2018 Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. If you're not familiar, that is our signature ministry equipping event for lay leaders and church staff that we hold on an annual basis. This presentation was about the critical elements of parenting in blended families.
Now, keep in mind that I'm talking to ministry leaders about helping, trying to help them know how to help people like you. But, as you listen to this presentation, just listen for the six key tasks of parenting in blended families, and then apply that to your specific family situation. I pray this is a blessing to you and your family.
Here we go: The Critical Tasks of Parenting in Blended Families.
Ron: From a ministry standpoint, can you relate to feeling unqualified every single day right here? Here's a cool thing. In God's economy that's what makes you qualified. Because it's not about us; it's about what He does in spite of us and through us.
I remind myself of that every single day, and I hope you will do the same.
Our theme this year is Parenting in Complex Families. You're going to be hearing from a number of different people talking about different vantage points and angles as we consider this topic. We'll hear people talk about stepmoms, about stepdads.
We'll talk about parenting children after divorce. We'll get to hear from some people who are reflecting on their childhood growing up in a blended family situation—a number of different subjects. What happens when a parent disappears and goes MIA? What happens if there's different nuances going on with biological parents in the lives of a child?
So those are the kinds of things you're going to be hearing from the stage. I want to spend some time talking with you about The Critical Tasks of Parenting in Blended Families. I’ve got to start off by just saying this: few things in my life have brought more joy and more pain to me than matters related to my children. I have celebrated; I've bragged on; I've posted about; I've experienced more pride related to my kids. You know that little false pseudo pride that we have as parents when our kids do something great, and we take credit for it, you know I've done that. Yes. I mean, I'm there.
And I've also agonized over and sobbed over and lost weight over and been more obsessed about and stressed and distressed over my kids than anything in my life.
Highs and lows, bitter and sweet; they mean everything to us. And as believers, we recognize that it's not just about raising them to be good kids, and we're not just trying to help them be responsible adults. We believe God's plan for evangelizing the world has something to do with families; has something to do with one generation passing to the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, says Psalm 78, right.
We believe that that's God's plan to evangelize the world. Yes, the church gets to come alongside that and there are many other people who play parts in God's kingdom in spreading the gospel. One of the primary ones from day one was the family. We want to raise them well, because they are going to go out into the world and take light into the darkness. At least we hope, and because of that we want to get parenting right. But let's just say it right up front, parenting is hard. It is unrefined. It is disjointed at times. It is unpredictable. It is confusing. It is frustrating. And anyone who says otherwise isn't a parent. [Laughter] Or they're trying to sell a book. [Laughter]
Now that's true of parenting in general, and if that's true of parenting in general, I think it's especially true that it's true in blended family situations because of the ambiguity that's going on in the home and the complexity that lays at the foundation of it. So I want to spend some time just trying to, at a very high level hitting and in helping you be attentive to some of the complexities that are true about parenting in blended families.
So, task number one. We need to help people parent in light of the context of their situation. Now, just to help you understand what I mean by the word context, a couple of illustrations. Here's a social, cultural context that's going on right now in our world—has to do with technology. Has anybody noticed that your phone has changed your parenting? Has anybody noticed that your phone has changed your kid's response to your parenting? I mean, in one sense, we use our phones and our devices and our... Those are great tools for connecting.
My wife and I, on a regular basis, have a house party. It's an app; you can look it up. It's kind of like FaceTime, only you can have six or eight people on there at once. And my son, who lives in Austin, Texas, and my other son, who's in school at the University of Arkansas, and we're here in Little Rock, we can all see each other and have a cool conversation once a week and connect. We love that.
We use technology to connect, but we're also learning really fast that technology is a distraction that leads to disconnect. Kids are not listening to parents the way they used to because they're swiping. And parents are not tuning in to their kids because they're paying attention to their phone. “I asked you to go brush your teeth. Did you brush your teeth?” “I lost track of that. I was on Facebook,” right? I mean, those things are already showing evidence of making a difference in how parenting works and creating some conflict between parents. That's just an example of context influencing parenting.
There’re other types of contexts, of course. Time and space is another one. I remember getting an email a number of years ago. Some of you have heard me tell this story about a woman who started kind of bleeding on paper. You know, telling me her life and her situation. She was so upset at her husband; had spent the day with his daughter, 12-year-old daughter, and she was kind of basically saying, “My husband chooses her over me.” I was feeling sorry for this woman, and then I kept reading the text, or excuse me, reading the email, and she gave me a little more of the context, and it shed a completely different light on the circumstances.
This is a dad, her husband; gets to see his two kids two weekends a year, and so when the twelve-year-old shows up, she says “Dad, would you take me to the museum, the art show today? Can we spend the day just you and I without stepmom.” And stepmom’s going off about how horrible that was. Wrong! Listen, lady, you're irrelevant on that day. This kid needs her dad for crying out loud. Would you just go away? Shut up, you know? Come on, think about it from the kid's point of view. Two weekends a year with dad. No, no, no. See, that ought to dictate what you do and how you respond in that situation.
And of course, there's relational context. It's interesting to me, you can take the same person who in their first marriage is a high functioning parent, and mate, let's say she's a mom and she is, boy, following through on all the rules. She's married to a guy who is kind of a low functioning parent, and he didn't really care. He's paying attention to his career a little bit more, and then they go through a divorce. Now, it's really on her and so boy, she kind of steps it up sometimes. Sometimes she drops down, but she's really carrying all the loads.
So she's working really hard in that single mom phase and then she marries a guy. Lo and behold, a stepdad who comes in and he is a super high functioning, very attentive to details and boundaries and follow through and he's the first one to react, even quicker than she always was. And because of that, she actually begins to do this in her parenting. She gets a little more passive. She doesn't have to fill the gap. He's already filled the gap. And sometimes, she doesn't like the way he parents and so she goes a little bit. And the same person becomes a very different parent because of the relational context with the person she's parenting with.
That's very true of people who go through that experience of first marriage, divorce, into a blended family. It can change who they are. Parenting in light of context; context is everything when it comes to understanding blended families. So, for example, let me just give you some examples of how parenting is different in light of the context of a blended family; parenting is diluted.
I have a friend in in Ghana, West Africa. I asked him once, “What did you learn about parenting growing up?” And he said, “Well, my father always told me two voices do not raise a child.” Oh, I love that. Two voices do not raise a child. One voice raises a child. That is when mom and dad are unified in their voice. The message to children over time is clear. It's understandable. They can get in line with it. They understand what the value is, what the principle is, what the boundary is.
But when you have two voices trying to raise a child, it gets confusing for a child. Which voice do I listen to? Do I go with that one or do I go with this one? What if that value is different than this value? In stepfamilies, kids often have three, four, five, or six voices when you add up all the adults that are influencing one given child. That just adds confusion.
Sometimes there's a legal system voice that's telling parents what to do and what they can't or cannot do, and so what this means, this diluted situation, means that parents have less power in blended families. They have—I can't tell you how many people that I've talked to who are going, who are deciding to divorce and one of the reasons is “I don't like the way my spouse parents and I just feel like if I go over here, then it would be easier for me to parent my kids.” No, it won't. It'll be harder. Your power gets less because what you do over here is of one voice and what they do over there is another voice. And if they bring in a stepparent in the other home, that's a third voice. Like your voice has less influence. I'm sorry, but it's just the case.
That also means that children have more power in the system. They can play one side off the other. Direction is less clear to them. There's less stability in terms of boundaries. And they have to make decisions on their own, rather than receiving guidance that is clear. So if you're going to parent in light of context, in a blended family, that means you've got to build strong alliances between all these adults, these three, four, five, six people. You got to try to help co-parenting between households to go well. You've got to close the cracks in the unity between the couple and their one, so that their one voice stands out and is really clear. It's just helpful for people to ponder that and think through that.
Another contextual example is parenting has to happen in light of loss. There's a narrative of sadness that is under the surface for everybody, in particular for children. Pain leaves a residue on our hearts, and it influences whether we trust others. It influences how a child will bond with a stepparent or stepsiblings, for example. It just kind of ripples out in lots of ways. I think you're going to hear more from Linda Jacobs about some of that and how it influences kids over time.
And here's the catch. Parents desperately want their kid's pain to go away. And so oftentimes, couples in blended families are working hard to kind of squash pain. They want to get rid of it. They don't want to see that in their children's eyes anymore and so they—when a child talks about something that hurts them or that they're angry about, that has to do with their household or the other household or whatever, parents, kind of, come in and do the minimize thing. “Oh, it's not that bad. Or “Oh, what you don't understand is this. You know that's easy, honey, not hard like you think.” And we're trying to squash the pain.
In part, because they maybe feel guilty for it, and I—you know you just don't want to see your kids hurt. That's a very authentic, genuine experience for parents. But we got to help them understand they can't do that. They have to acknowledge the pain. They have to step into the pain. They have to become grief counselors. They have to join in the pain, empathize with the pain, bring it out and let them talk more about it, give them a safe place to experience that pain rather than try to shut it down. Think about that. If you're shutting it down, you're isolating your child from you. You're disconnecting around the thing that is under the surface and driving them. No, you want to connect into that. It's hard, but we got to get into it.
Another one is parental guilt. That's another contextual factor in blended families.
Parental, you just feel guilty about the past and what's happened and that can paralyze parents. Like, I know I should ground you for what you just did, but I'm just not because you've been through enough. Well, that little paralyzed moment just means that I have less power as a parent, less influence, and my child has more, and we are leaving them unto themselves, and they need more direction and guidance, not less.
Let me just tie this together in one quick story that I tell in the book The Smart Stepfamily. It's about a woman who during her single parent years, she had this open-door policy at night. She—you know her kids had been through a lot, she'd been through a lot, their family had obviously been fractured, and so everybody went to bed and left their bedrooms door open. Mom did too, so the kids could come in if they had a bad dream or something at night, and that was useful and helpful for them.
But then she gets married, and you know you kind of want to have sex, right? So what do you do? First thing she does is close the bedroom door. Well, her nine-year-old daughter noticed immediately the change. “There's a new boundary in this house that has meaning. Something's different; I no longer have access to my mom like I used to,” right? And so—and she, nine-year-old, pretty savvy was also aware of romance and sexual relationship between married people and so she—the couple found her a few times leaning up against the door at night listening to see if she could hear them having sex. And they told her not to do that and sent her back to bed. But they didn't put a lock on the door.
True story, right? So one night, about 2 AM, she comes and bursts through the door; there they are having sex! Little nine-year-old is running through the house, “THEY'RE HAVING SEX! THEY'RE HAVING SEX!” [Laughter] Put a lock on your door, alright?
What the outcome of this is—I mean, that's all kind of—alright, you can kind of understand it, but the outcome is that they didn't put a lock on the door. They were so embarrassed about this. They didn't want to talk to the girl about sexuality and all that kind of stuff. By the way, can you imagine a little girl going to school and writing her assignment that day, you know? “Mommy should have left her panties on.” How embarrassing!
They were so embarrassed they were frozen and did nothing and so they quit having sex. That's a good example of the context from single parent years to the boundaries in blended family years, to, how do we make room and space for? How do we enter into this and have a discussion. There is a lost narrative at the end. It's all kind of there, right? You have to kind of deal with all of it. Otherwise, you could lose your connection and kids have more power in ways that are not healthy.
Task number two: help parents and stepparents manage process, not just content. Let me define. Content is what's above the surface. Content is, do we put locks on the door? Content is what time you go to bed. Content is, does everybody get themselves up in the morning and get backpacks on? Content is, what are your responsibilities as a member of this family?
The process is the emotional stuff. It's the content or the context underneath the surface. It's how well do you and I sing together? Are we singing with one voice? Are we singing with two voices? Are we trying to negotiate our togetherness in the midst of a child who is trying to divide and conquer us? Do we have another person in the other household who is undoing everything we're trying to do in this household? That's the process. And all too often people get caught up in content and they forget to pay attention to the process.
Alright, it reminds me of a mom one time who said, “You know my husband corrects my kids like the inmates he works with at the prison.” No, you can't do that. You're going to end up in prison, right? You got to manage process.
Some of you have heard me tell my favorite story. Years ago, I got a phone call.
I was working for a church in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and the phone call went like this. “Hi Ron, we're marriage mentors at our church. We're working with a couple that's about to get married, and we're mentoring them. They're going to be a blended family. And we just had a phone call with her and boy, we didn't know what to say. She had a dilemma, and we didn't know what to tell her. So we're calling you hoping you could tell us what to tell her.” I was like “Alright, fire away. Sounds like a setup, but I'll give it my best shot, you know.” [Laughter]
“So here's the situation. She's divorced. She's got three pre-adolescent, early teenage years kids. She's marrying a man who's never been married before. He doesn't have any children, doesn't know anything about parenting but he has some ideas about parenting. And oh, by the way, we need to tell you, he's an ex-Marine.”
Anybody here who knows Marines knows there's no such thing as an ex-Marine, just Marine. [Laughter] But that's what they said. “He's an ex-Marine. And he just called her and said, ‘Honey, I want you to tell your kids when you and I get married next month, they need to know the Marines have landed.’”
They say to me, “What should we tell them?” And I said, “Well, tell them this. Good luck with all that, because that's not going to”—no, I didn't say that. I went into this big, long lecture about parenting and stepparenting roles and relationships and things we'll talk about later today and you know, laid it all out, spent an hour and a half with them on the phone. They said, “Thank you very much. We appreciate your time,” and they hung up.
And as soon as they hung up, I went, “Ah, I didn't even get their name. I didn't get their phone number. I don't know how to follow up with these people. Man, I hope that was helpful. I hope that was good advice. Maybe they'll let me know how it goes.” Did these people ever let me know how it goes? Do they ever think, “You know Ron may be sitting in his office worried that he gave us the wrong advice. Maybe we should call him back and tell him what happened as a result of...” No, they never think of me; they just go on with life. [Laughter]
And so, I got nothing. I'm just wondering “What happened?” You know, like, “What happened?” And you, you're sitting here wondering, “What happened?” So was I—for 18 months. A year and a half later, I go to this big event, Christian Counselor Conference happens every couple of years. And I go in and I tell that much of the story because it's a pretty good story about Marine man. It's an illustration of, look, help people understand process, not content.
This guy is focusing on being a Marine and he's going to save the day and he's going to fix everything. And a lot of stepparents, kind of have that mentality and that's all above the surface stuff. What he doesn't understand is the undersurface stuff. He needs to understand his role in bonding with the kids and until he earns their trust, he really shouldn't be in a position of discipline or authority. His wife ought to be doing that. And if he will play to his strengths while she plays to hers, if he'll build relationship rather than being the boss, they have a chance. Don't let people be Marine man.
That was my message; had 350 therapists in the audience. The workshop was over, went back to my little exhibit, was standing there talking with a few people. This woman comes over to me. She's kind of behind a bunch of folks. She goes, “Hey, can I talk?” So I go over and I say, “Yes, can I help you?” She says, “Hey, I just was at your workshop. Thank you. That was wonderful. It was very helpful. I just want you to know you told that Marine man story about that couple,” she said, “that was us.” And I said, “Oh, you're the mentor. I didn't have your name. I didn't have your phone number. I really want to know what happened.”
And she goes, “No, no, no, no. You don't understand. That was us. I was the woman who called the mentors, and they called you and then they called me back.” So I said, “What happened?” [Laughter] And I'll tell you what she said in just a minute. Okay, moving on. See, you don't like waiting either. I had to wait a year and a half; make you wait about five minutes. Somebody's going to wait and suffer with me. [Laughter] I'm not going to be the only one, I'm telling you what.
Another thing about managing process instead of content—you're going, “He's not going to tell us, is he?” I'm not going to tell you. We're moving on right now. Managing process is parenting always intersects with marriage, right? So it starts off as a parenting thing, but it immediately is a marriage thing. You're coming to me about my child, and you have an issue, and you want me to address that with you, but you are kind of already telling me that I am a bad parent because my kid's not performing well.
That's kind of the way it feels to me. So now I get defensive about my kid. That's parenting heart. But then I'm also feeling the criticism of one spouse to another. That's my marital heart. And this affects how I think of you as my husband, as my wife. Can I trust you? Can I trust my kids with you? Can I trust me with you? It is always also about marriage, and we got to help people understand this.
The way I do this as I help people is I say, go out of your way to find that one voice, to find unity in your relationship, because divided you've—divided, you know—together you're united and everything is going well. United you stand, right, but divided they fall. The kids are the ones who suffer for your divide. So go out of your—way out of your way; go the long way around this parenting choice or decision to consult with one another, check in with one another, preserve your marriage in the process of preserving your parenting moment because it's always about both.
The above the surface content: can you go to the party? Yes or no; that's the content. The below the surface processes: are you and I unified in this decision in how we communicate that to the child? That is just as important, if not more than what's going on above the surface. We've got to help people find unity.
Task number three: clarify the role of parent and stepparent; very different roles, especially on day one. Initially, biological parents and stepparents have very different roles in what they can do and why they can do it in the family. Bill Doherty, the family therapist, says that biological parents are first violin on day one. Stepparents are second violin. I love that imagery. They're both playing from the same sheet of music.
They're both playing the same song, one voice. But somebody has to take the lead. Why is that? Because biological parents have clarity in their role and stepparents have ambiguity in their role.
Clarity is, you're my mom, end of story—same blood, same last name. We have the same narrative of our lives. We've been through the same stuff together. We've survived the hard things together. We are sitting in this house. We are connected through blood, through legacy, through grandparents, on and on and on. There's clarity in that relationship. You're my mom.
And on day one, a stepparent has ambiguity. I'm not sure who you are. I don't know how you fit into my life. I may love you. I may respect you. I may think highly of you as a person, but where do I put you in my heart? I have a bio mom. I have a biological dad.
Even if dad is deceased, he lives on in my heart, and I'm confident of how he would parent me and you're not that person. And so, there's always comparisons and contrasts, and I'm trying to figure out how to honor you, but not be disloyal to my biological dad. You know there's all of that mumbo jumbo stuff going on in a child's heart that adds up to ambiguity. I'm not sure whether I should obey you, and how, and under what circumstances.
Bio parents have clarity; stepparents have ambiguity. You've got to let people understand those roles. And what that means is stepparents should not rush quickly like Marine man did. I haven't forgotten. I will tell you the rest of the story in a minute. [Laughter] You cannot rush into being disciplinary and rule setting and on and on and on because they're trying to figure out where you fit.
What you should do is rush into relationship building, bonding, connecting. It's really amazing how if a stepparent will spend the first couple of years just developing warmth and respect with the child and earning their right to lead, it's night and day, the outcomes. It's not always perfect, it's not always exactly what you want, but kids come to trust. I trust your heart for me; therefore, I can trust when you say “No, you can't go and do that.” But when parents get that out of order, things begin to unwind. The order really matters.
Now, sometimes when we teach this—I have to say through the years, I've had people come to me and argue with it. Like, “Wait a minute. You know that feels like disunity. That feels like something's wrong there. Like you're disempowering the stepparent. You're saying they're less than.” Well, no, we're not saying they're less than. They have worth and value as a person, individual. All of that is the same as a child of the King. But in terms of functionality and what you can do and how you get there, it is very different. And you can argue with me. Good luck with that. [Laughter]
But it really is different so it's not disunity. It's a lot like we kind of sing about and talked about this morning; the members of the body of Christ are different, 1 Corinthians 12. We have different grace gifts given by the same Spirit and the same God that empowers all of us, but together those different gifts complement each other, foster unity and strength within the church. It's a little bit like that. Look, play to one another's strengths, work together. You can do this, and you can do that, and eventually you can move more into a place where you're more like a biological parent, but you have to earn the right to get there.
Now, let me just throw a little caveat at you. This may feel like a little whiplash but hang on. Having said everything I just said, here's another overarching principle I want to give you to what I just said. That's the general principle that works best, research informed, time tested. That's the best thing to teach people. Every once in a while, you will have somebody come up to you and go, “Boy, we did it all wrong but we're still doing okay. Should we switch the way we're doing?” No, because here's the overarching principle: try it and see and if what is happening in your home is working well, keep doing it.
Because of the complexity of blended families, the number of people, the different relationship narratives under the surface, the type of loss people have been through, what kids have gone through, the different personalities of adults and children—there's a lot of things—every once in a while, you get rule breaker families. Like they've done everything wrong by the book but everything's going right in their life. Ask people, “Is it working? How's your family doing?” “Oh, we're doing good. Things seem to be going really well.” “Great, then keep going.” Like, ignore everything I just said. [Laughter] Fire me, you know; keep going. Because it really is true that there's so much complexity that we can't always predict exactly what's going to work.
So I say to this woman, “What happened?” [Laughter] She says, “Well, he came in like a Marine. He kind of ignored everything that we'd passed along, and you'd passed to our mentors.” And I'm like, “Oh, so what happened?” He came in like a Marine, started barking orders, expecting the children to obey. I so wanted to support him as my husband.”
You know, I listened to her mom heart and her wife heart kind of getting confused. “I so wanted to support him, but I couldn't support the way he was going about it. And my kids would come to me, and they'd say, ‘Mom, like, why is he doing it?’ And I'm like, ‘I don't know.’” And she'd try to play the middleman and coach one side and the other side. And when she'd go to her husband and say, “Listen, honey, I just wonder if I can talk to you about it.” “Then he would accuse me of taking their side and then he felt like he was all alone and so that divided us.”
And I'm like, “Oh yes, so what happened?” She said “He did that for about a year. And then one day he came to me, and he said, ‘You know, I'm sorry. I think I've now realized that all that stuff they told us in the beginning, you know, I just really thought I was doing right by the kids. I thought I was doing the right thing.’”
By the way, sidebar, that is what parents and stepparents do. They all think they're doing the right thing. They love them. They care for them. It's not that they just want to run over and control everybody. They really think they're doing the right thing. He did too and he came to the realization “I can't do that anymore and I really need to stop, and I apologize to you.” He apologized and then she said “And then he went and apologized to my children. And we decided together that he just needed to back way off and kind of go back and start over and try to bond with the kids.”
I said, “That's great that he apologized, but I'm sure that didn't fix everything.” She said, “No, it didn't.” It's been about six months and they've just been trying to heal. “And I think things are getting a little better, but we're just regrouping.” And she said, “And one other thing”—and this was a great observation—"when he stepped down and started kind of going back to relationship building—like we wish you would have started there”—she said, “I realized”—this is that teeter totter thing I was talking about—"I realized because he had gone up, I was going down. I was trying to counter him. And the more he went up, I went down. The more I went down, the more he went up. And we had gotten polarized in our parenting and in our marriage.” That's the way it works.
And she said, “Then when he decided to do this, I realized I hadn't been mom for a really long time. And I had to kick it in gear, and I had to start being mom again. And so, I'm kind of in that adjustment phase and the kids are getting used to me being mom again.” And I'm like, “Wow, lots going on there. It feels like you're on the right track. I'm so glad you shared that with me. Thank you for telling me what happened.” And that was it; walked away.
It's funny that Christian Counselors Conference happens every two years. So two years later, I went back to that conference, and I told that much of the story. I think it's a good story. It makes a good point. At the end of the workshop, something weird happened. Five people walked up to me and said, “Hey, we know who you're talking about.” I'm like, “I don't even know who I'm talking about. How do you know who I'm talking about? I don't know their names. I don't know where they live.”
Yes, but we know who you're talking about, because we work with her in a counseling center, and we just got an update. And I said, “What happened?” [Laughter] And they said, “Well, we think they're doing better. You know, things are going pretty well and she's giving good reports.” And I'm like, “Alright, that's pretty cool. Thanks for telling me.”
And if you read The Smart Stepdad book, you'll read that much of the story. What you won't read is what happened two years later when I went back to that same world conference. I'm not making this up. I told that much of the story and three people came up to me at the end of the workshop said, “We know who you're talking about.” I said, “I don't even know who I'm talking about. How do you know it?” And she, they said, “Well”—and I said, “So what happened?” They said, “Well, I don't know. They’re kind of in a rough patch right now so let's pray for them.” I'm like, “Okay, absolutely.”
Two years later, I went back to that same world conference. I told that much of the story and at the end of my workshop, nobody came up to me. Two years later, I went back to that same world conference. I told that much of the story and still nobody came up to me. A year and a half ago, I went back to that same world conference. This all happens over a period of about 12 years. I told that much of the story, and I begged somebody in the room to come up and tell me what happened, and nobody did. So I don't know what happened, and neither do you. Alright, moving on. [Laughter]
Task number four: improve your between home parenting. This is where Tammy Daughtry comes alive in her work on co-parenting, great book, great material. I want to refer you to that. There's an image on the screen. Take a look at this little—isn't that a beautiful picture? Here's this little girl in the middle, got mommy and daddy, we got stepdad, stepmom, and they're all on the same team. That is a beautiful image of what we want to try to help create in co-parenting between the homes if people will come together, set aside their differences, set aside their bitterness, do their forgiveness work.
Now we all know that's a challenge. It's hard to get motivated towards that, but that's where we want to move people. And if we can do that, not only does it help children; it helps a lot of other things going on within the home. It helps, it ripples into, it improves the marriage on both sides because they have less stress that's influencing them. They have less conflict over, “Why did you tell your ex-wife that?” “You know, why did you accommodate her this time?” Like, that's—now we have to make an adjustment. Why did you”—you know, so there's less conflict within the marriages in both homes. There's less conflict between the homes. Kids don't become pawns between all the adults playing all their crazy games. That's what we're going for. It's worth spending time and energy helping people move toward that. Even if it's incremental, it's worth spending time on that.
Task number five: understand good parenting. Now, this one's kind of funny. Some of you might go, well, wait a minute. Isn't that what we're supposed to teach from day one is good parenting skills? Well, I want to suggest to you that the order matters. Like if we teach good parenting, but we don't teach stepfamily parenting and context and process, then good parenting will go haywire.
Like this Marine man guy was doing good parenting on some level. What he had learned and what he had read in most parenting books that's designed for biological family units, he was applying that. He was just trying to step in and be a leader. It was backfiring, undercutting his family in a thousand ways because he got it out of order.
When we help them understand context, and parent in light of that, and manage process, move towards one voice, then they can take the principles that you read in most good parenting books, and apply them because they're unified, and everything else is in place. Get it out of order, and things begin to come apart.
Recently I was getting my hair cut. I love having conversations with people who cut my hair. She's a single mom. She has a child of her own. She had just gotten married with a guy, two months into this new family. She's trying to stepparent, stepmom a nine-year-old little girl who is dead set against her being in the house. She had just found out—the hairdresser just found out that the nine-year-old had told somebody at school, who told a teacher, that she was planning to tell the authorities that her stepmom had abused her so she could get her out of the home.
This stepmom had said to her husband “Why won't you parent your child? You got to help me with her. She is unruly. She da, da, da, da.” And her husband, the dad, said, “No, I'm waiting for the biological mom to come back into the picture and set things right.” Bio mom had not had any interaction with the nine-year-old in five years.
Then this stepmom says to me, “What can I do to improve the situation?” You see she's attending to content, and that's all she knows to attend to, is content. I have an unruly child who needs somebody to discipline her, and I got to be the one because nobody else will do it. But the process is bio mom's out of the picture. The process is bio dad won't do anything. He's paralyzed by guilt. He won't respond. How much power do you think this stepmom has to make a difference in the life of this nine-year-old who's about to tell the authorities she abuses her? Zero. We've got to turn her attention to process and context, because if that doesn't get addressed, good parenting skills will flop. The order really matters.
It's interesting there was a study done a number of years ago about what is good parenting. And the second most important parenting practice, according to this meta-analysis where they analyze a whole lot of studies about parenting in the subject, and they put it all together and they look at the data—the second most important parenting process is something we rarely ever talk about when we do parent education, and that's managing your own stress.
What predicts outcomes for children more than anything, number two on the list, is that whether or not I, as a parent, manage my own stress. Have you ever heard anybody address that in a parenting conference or education? Isn't that fascinating? Why? Because stress and temper create a temper in me, it distracts me, it disorganizes me.
If I'm not learning how to manage my own stress, I decompress, right? I start reacting to children instead of responding to children. We got to help people deal with their stress. What's going on in their world so that they get responsive to a child? The best thing for a distressed child is a calm parent.
Let me say that again. The best thing for a distressed child is a calm parent, not a distressed parent. Now we have two distressed people taking it out on each other. It's not pretty. I've got to learn to find my calm. And what does that mean? It means trusting God with my anxiety. It means trusting God with what I can't change.
This also means that my discipleship as a child of God, my walk with Christ has everything to do with who I am as a parent figure. If I put on the fruit of the spirit, Galatians chapter five, then I'm more calm, more in self-control. I'm more loving. I'm more gentle, right? That helps me be the person I need to be for my child. That helps my child get over their distress when they're with a calm person. Luke 6, if I build my house on the rock and I walk in obedience, then I'm in a better place to be able to help my child deal with life.
Now, let me close with this. Having said all of that, even in the best scenarios that we can possibly imagine for parents and how we try to help them in terms of shaping a child's heart, let me just say this: it is never in our control. I am really tired of the church implying that A plus B always equals C. Without realizing it, we, I think we just really do parents a disservice. We just say, “Here are the ten easy steps, follow these things, everything's going to work out perfectly for your kids.” That's not true, people.
It's never in our control.
And by the way, isn't it ironic that we would give people a message of, you don't really need God, you can be sufficient and in and of yourself to get all this done in the right way. All you have to do is perform well as parents. What kind of theology is that? Completely wrong and distorted, right? And we put all this pressure on parents to get it all right. And then they put pressure on their kids because they're distressed, and a distressed parent leads to a distressed child. We're undoing ourselves. We lay this burden on people. If they don't get something right, you must, if your kids are acting up, you must have messed up. “What'd you do wrong?” Like that blame game.
Man, if that theology holds, then God carries a lot of responsibility for His children. We ought to blame Him, you know. I mean, think about it, right? That's not right. That's not a good posture in parenting. None of us have all the answers. None of the prescriptions are all going to add up to exactly the outcome we want. A plus B does not always equal C. We need to comfort parents that they are not judged by the behavior of their kids. They are called to be intentional, purposeful, and faithful to the task that God has given them. Within that and beyond that, we fall in the grace of God. Can I get an amen? [Amen]
So that brings me to our last point. Task number six: parents, we just need to trust the Heavenly Father to do in our kids’ lives what only He can do, what only He can do. In my own life, becoming a parent of young adult men has reminded me of how incredibly small I am. In my ministry, my most frustrating conversations are with stepcouples that center around their adult kids who refuse to engage the family or don't want to reconcile, or there's a strained relationship, or former spouses who manipulate the kids, you know, all stuff we don't get to control.
Yes. And every one of those things reminds us we are powerless, really, over our kids’ lives. We can influence. We can influence through our relationship, and who we are, and our training, and our modeling, and that's all influenced. But nobody gets to determine the outcome. That is in the hand of God. And we always have to turn back to the Father and ask for His help.
Lord God, may we rest in that thought; that You are the great and loving Heavenly Father, and we are not, and we cannot be everything to our kids. Would You just help us to put on Jesus where we can and be as we are called to be and just trust You with the rest.
God, I pray for the people that are here and the influence, the tremendous influence they have over parents and stepparents and how they can lead and guide them in good directions. But even then, God, our ministries are never enough. It is always in Your hands. And we trust You with it. In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.
You've been listening to a presentation I did at the 2018 Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. If you want to learn more about that annual event, just look in the show notes for more information. And by the way, there are over 30 hours of training from that event that are available online for those who really want to do a deep dive in understanding more about ministry to stepfamilies in a local church and community. Just look for the All-Access Digital Pass in our FamilyLife shop.
You might also be interested in our certificate in blended family ministry. That is over seven hours of training from our annual Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. That'll help you, again, make some decisions about how you might be able to minister to families in your church and community.
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