RLL 61: Two Difficulties of Being a Step-parent

RLL 61: Two Difficulties of Being a Step-Parent

[Full disclosure: I am not a step-parent. However, I’m married to one, and all of the information here comes from my discussion with her and with other step-parents (including my girls’ step-dad) over the past few years. I’m grateful for the work, the effort, and the energy my wife, my ex-wife, and my girls’ step-dad put into helping raise our girls. None of us could do it alone; thankfully, we don’t have to.]

Maryellyn and Carly celebrating Carly’s birthday on the water

Maryellyn and Carly celebrating Carly’s birthday on the water

Step-parenting is difficult, one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Why? Well, lots of reasons, many of which people who aren’t involved in it wouldn’t have ever thought about. I know that it was eye-opening for me to have conversations with step-parents because there are various issues or difficulties about step-parenting that simply wouldn’t have occurred to me as the biological parent in the situation. Today, I want to mention just two quick thoughts on what it’s like for step-parents and also on how other people can help encourage them.

1. Step-parents are often given all of the same responsibilities of a biological parent, without the same title, without the guarantee of the positives of parenting (respect, love, even kindness), and without the same level of authority. This is an aspect I had never considered, but when it was pointed out to me, it blew me away. God bless every step-parent in the world for taking on such a difficult and monumental task. As a biological parent, one thing I can do is to set an example to my kids in respecting, loving, and showing kindness to their step-parents simply by doing those things…and not just to my spouse. How can I help make sure that our daughters show their step-dad respect? By being respectful to him myself and by encouraging them to do the same. This also helps me to have a better relationship with him, allowing us to cooperate instead of compete. I learned this lesson from my wife, who along with my ex-wife, has done a great job of working together to help raise our girls.

Another way to help encourage step-parents here is to verbally acknowledge all of the many difficult tasks that step-parents take on. Tell them thank you, and mean it. Show true appreciation for the work they do, the hours they spend helping raise the kids, and the efforts they make to have good relationships with the children.

Maryellyn and the girls sharing the couch and a blanket on Christmas morning

Maryellyn and the girls sharing the couch and a blanket on Christmas morning

2. From society, there is often a lack of sympathy and understanding for the stepparents. From those who haven’t experienced it, there is even a lack of recognition of the difficulties of step-parenting. Think of the way step-parents have been portrayed in literature and movies. Very rarely is it positive, and for most of us our first experience with any step-parent was the evil stepmother in Cinderella. On the upside, that is beginning to change somewhat, as step-parenting becomes more common. But here’s where the big gap still exists: almost universally, when you announce to the world that you are or are becoming a parent, people are happy and excited and encouraging.

When you tell people that you’re a stepparent, there’s a noticeably different response, though people often try to hide it. Sometimes it’s judgment, sometimes it’s disapproval, sometimes it’s other things, but very rarely are step-parents responded to in the same way. As a biological parent, what I can do then is to consistently remind both my spouse and other step-parents of how important their task is, how much they are appreciated, and how I support them in helping raise their children.

Ok, there’s two quick thoughts on the difficulties of being a step-parent. Again, God bless you all for your love and for the way you help raise your children!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses, as well as other suggestions on how to help encourage step-parents. Thanks!

Action Step: This week, be sure to encourage and thank a step-parent for their effort and energy on behalf of a family you know.

RLL 60--Keys to Blended Family Life

Real Life Leading #60

Keys to Blended Family Life


Happy (late) New Year! I’m excited to share with you this first post of 2019 and in doing so to give an update on what the new year holds.

I was blessed to give my presentation on blended families called ‘Four Parents, Two Houses: Parenting Together Despite Difficulties’ at the National Head Start Association conference in Florida just before Christmas. Afterward, we were extremely encouraged at the response: there was tremendous support, feedback, and a desire to learn more from the audience. Many in the audience inquired about other resources and what they can do to help other blended families in their hometowns, and I’m looking forward to continuing to support them.

Recent statistics suggest that about 60-70% of second marriages fail (https://family.lovetoknow.com/co-parenting/blended-family-statistics), and many of these marriages are the ones that have created blended families. Thus, there is a tremendous need to help blended families succeed, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that. I’m part of a blended family and have been for years, and I’m thankful to share the wisdom from other blended families as well. Within our situation, I’m also thankful that all four parents (and the many grandparents) have worked so hard to make our lives work as well as they do, and I truly want others to experience the same type of success.

One of my favorite family pictures: mean-mugging with the soccer balls in front of a goal!

One of my favorite family pictures: mean-mugging with the soccer balls in front of a goal!

Within blended families, even before parents may be remarried, every issue becomes more complex because there are more moving pieces. Issues that are already difficult in traditional families now have more moving parts, more opinions, and more egos involved. Issues such as holiday or sports schedules; vacations and activities; teenage issues like cars and clothing and make-up and dating; inter-family and/or sibling rivalries and favoritism (real or perceived); buying patters for household items; and what we call ‘switch-over’ items that travel between homes; all of these are potential stumbling blocks for blended families and thus need to be discussed with patience, care, and compassion by all parties involved. And these are just the beginning. Each blended family will also have circumstances unique to its own situation that will require patience and understanding.

Because of the difficulties, the single biggest asset that parents can bring to blended families is humility: self-forgetfulness and a willingness to serve others by putting their interests first. The key to blended family life is to focus on the proper mindset, because then the actions will more easily follow. There are three tips I want to share (that I elaborate on in my presentations) about how to approach blended family life:

  1. Exercise humility by putting the children first and being willing to serve and listen to others, including the other household and/or other adults involved in the situation.

  2. Be willing to admit fault and compromise. Celebrate every victory, however small.

  3. Keep a long-term perspective, and learn to pick your battles. There’s a large difference between something that is actually dangerous or harmful to your children and something that is simply inconvenient to you or something you don’t like very much. [On issues of dangerous or harmful situations (what I call red-flag issues), seek outside help and guidance, but still try to do so as gently as possible, for the sake of the long-term relationships of the children with all parents involved.]

I sum all of this up by paraphrasing Gandhi: “Be the adult and parent you want your children to become.”

These guidelines might sound simple, but they become quite complex when you actually seek to apply them. I’d love to help you learn how to live a better blended family life in 2019!

Action step: If you or someone you know could benefit from learning more about this, be sure to share this or reach out to them and just encourage them.

Have an amazing 2019, and I look forward to hearing from you. For more info on blended family life, check out the video on my website https://reallifeleading.com/ or click on the Blended Family tab at the top of the page.

RLL 59: Lessons from 2018

Real Life Leading #59: Lessons from 2018

This year has been, like all years, full and fascinating and up and down and joyful and painful. It’s been a year of growth and of change, and it’s also been a year to be thankful for the consistency of certain aspects of life. Today, I wanted to share with you a few thoughts on what I’ve learned this year. The last three lessons are ones that I shared last year, too; when I re-read them, I thought, “Those are worth repeating.” So I did. I hope you enjoy this post, and I hope it inspires you to reflect on what you’ve learned this year as well!

1. I LOVE listening to podcasts and being interviewed on them.

This year, I was interviewed on close to 30 different podcasts, and I probably listened to over 200 hours of podcasts: shows on Tolkien, on Lewis, interview shows, shows about history or religion or parenting, etc. I found this year that I can learn a ton on my commute to and from school (a 90-minute round trip each day) by podcasting, and I strongly recommend you find some that you enjoy as well. The Jordan Harbinger Show is great for interviews and motivation, and the Prancing Pony Podcast and The Green Door Podcast are two of my favorite Tolkien-based shows.

2. I am supremely blessed in that every single day I go to work, I also get to do what I love.

Whether I’m teaching a high school history or Bible class, coaching soccer (youth or high school), or doing a presentation on blended family life, leadership, or education; whichever ‘job’ I’m working that day is a job that I love. I consider myself to be among the most blessed people in the world because I get paid to do what I would volunteer to do anyway. And I never want to take that for granted.

3. Temptations to make selfish decisions never fully go away.

Coaching my younger daughter’s church league soccer team for the final year was bittersweet.

Coaching my younger daughter’s church league soccer team for the final year was bittersweet.

One of my biggest failures in the past has been spending too much time on sports and not enough time with my family. As I got older, I thought this would get easier; turns out, I was wrong. What I’ve learned this year is that every single day I have to re-choose to make the right decisions. It’s a never-ending battle in which I have to die to self and choose others. Sometimes I fail; many times, by the grace of God, I succeed. But I am more than ever convinced of the truth spoken by John Bradford centuries ago, when it comes to temptation or to sin: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’m not any better than anyone else; only by God’s grace can I do anything good. It’s humbling, because it’s true.

4. 14 and 11 is harder (and easier) than 13 and 10.

This year, my older daughter turned 14, and it was both easier and harder than 13. It was harder because her friends are turning 15, dating more, getting driver’s permits, and transitioning more to adulthood, and she is on the same path. But it was also easier because she’s maturing, she’s making good decisions, and she’s showing that she has the makings of an amazing young woman. I wouldn’t go back to 13 (though it wasn’t bad!), but I’m also not rushing to get her to 15. My younger daughter is now 11 and almost done with elementary school. The thought that my younger one is about to enter middle school is hard, because kids get meaner and problems get bigger. But I’m also excited about the young lady she is becoming, and I’m thankful to get to see her continue to grow and develop and learn, especially as she often imitates her older sister.

5. Dogs don’t understand time changes.

I was very excited about the “fall back” time change, when we gain an extra hour of sleep. My dogs, not so much. Turns out dogs don’t know that the clock says a different time; and that time means that I should get to sleep in a bit! Nope, they’re hungry, or they have to pee, and so at 4:45 (which would have been 5:45), they’re awake and ready for the day to begin. I was not thrilled. We got it sorted after a week or so, but yeesh, I should have seen that coming and prepared.

6. My best friend got married, and I’m so thrilled for him and his wife!

David and his wife April

David and his wife April

I was absolutely honored and thrilled to get to be part of my best friend’s wedding this year. He’s been looking forward to marriage and settling down for some time, and I couldn’t be happier for him and his bride. When we get together, we now laugh about the amusing parts of marriage, and we still recount tales of idiotic things we did when we were younger. The change is subtle but unmistakable: he seems happier, more settled, and it makes me smile each time I think about it. When I gave a toast at his wedding reception, I forgot to say one important thing, and so I’ll say it here: we’ve been buddies for 30+ years, and I couldn’t have asked for a better, more loyal friend. Through ups and downs, moves and changes, pain and joy, he’s been there; and now, we’re thrilled to have his wife as part of our family as well.

7. Reading is a key part of my world.

Listening to audiobooks and podcasts is great, but I also found this year that when I don’t take time to actually sit and read a book (an actual book, with pages and everything; nothing against e-readers, but I just don’t enjoy them as much), I get a bit cranky. So this year, despite the busy, I carved out a bit of time to read at least a few nights each week. And I’m glad I did.

8. Learning history is more important now than ever before.

I’m sure this sounds self-serving since I’m a history teacher, but I believe it is true regardless. Look at the news, follow any major storylines, and you’ll see that people of all political persuasions are taking more liberties with ‘truth’ than ever before. As a result, we need to arm ourselves against those influences by being knowledgeable about the past. And the only way to do that is through learning it. The danger here is that ALL HISTORY that you learn is biased in some way. All of it. Some person wrote it, and therefore the history is influenced by the person who wrote it. We need to remember that is also true of every news article we read, whether about something as huge as politics and tax cuts or something as mundane as a basketball game. The key is: go learn your history, and then you will be better able to see through the biased ‘truth’ being presented by both sides, and you will thus be better able to make an informed judgment about what the truth really is. Start with something simple: sign up for the “This Day In History” email from the History Channel website, and then just read the major headlines each day. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn in a few minutes.

9. Looking to serve other people builds better relationships than just looking to profit from them.

I have always believed in the value of building good relationships, and I learned this year that it’s even more important than I’d realized. Again, I came across this by listening to various podcasts in which Bob Burg (best-selling author of ‘The Go-Giver’ and other books, www.burg.com) emphasized how important it is that we serve other people even when it isn’t going to get us more business or help us make better profits. Also, at the recommendation of my best friend, I read a couple of great books by Andy Andrews (The Noticer and The Noticer Returns ) that emphasize similar ideas. Simply by looking to serve first we build better relationships. In the long run, these may help us profit more, but the point is: profit ISN’T the point. Relationships are.

10. “Where there’s life, there’s hope...and need of vittles.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

My wife and I enjoying a date in Orlando after I spoke at a conference there. It’s hard not to be hopeful when surrounded by beauty.

My wife and I enjoying a date in Orlando after I spoke at a conference there. It’s hard not to be hopeful when surrounded by beauty.

This year, like all years, I’ve spent much time reading through the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and I also began reading works by a man that influenced both of them: G.K. Chesterton. Throughout all of their works, there is a common theme: hope. No matter how bad things are (or seem to be), where there’s life, there’s hope, as Tolkien says. 2018 seemed to be awful for a lot of people in a lot of ways, and unfortunately that means many people are anticipating 2019 to be even worse. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be so. Let’s commit to making our little pocket of the world a better place, full of hope and joy, and together we can make 2019 better than any of us expect! If you don't believe me, that's ok; do me a favor and go read anything by Tolkien (especially 'The Hobbit' or 'The Lord of the Rings') or Lewis (especially 'The Chronicles of Narnia' or 'Mere Christianity') and just enjoy them. You'll also be amazed at how hopeful you feel while reading them.

For a number of years now, I have been reminded of one important truth: we can all be redeemed, none of us is without hope of improvement. I believe that the Bible is true, and it teaches us that all of us are broken sinners; but it also teaches us that we have a hope in Jesus Christ. It teaches us that He will never leave us or forsake us, and it teaches us that through Him, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, His grace is sufficient for us. Therefore, there is ALWAYS hope. Let’s look forward to a hope-filled 2019!

Action Step:

Today, write down five lessons you learned in 2018, and how you hope to apply those lessons in 2019.