When a child gets stuck on a homework problem, she might go to her dad for help. Or she might go to her mom.
But will she go to her stepmother or stepfather? And when it’s time for the parent-teacher conference, should the stepparent be there?
Overall, what role should a stepparent have in setting and enforcing academic expectations at home?
These are some of the questions parents and children grapple with as they negotiate the complex landscape of so-called “blended” families.
“School is the most central thing for kids,” says Anne Burt, editor of My Father Married Your Mother: Dispatches from the Blended Family, a collection of essays from novelists, journalists, and others about their experiences in blended families. “From education to social life, there is a lot going on at school.”
Burt has one daughter and one stepdaughter, both in 6th grade. She is her daughter’s go-to person for homework, but is her stepdaughter’s on-call parent. “I’m the backup,” she says. “She always goes to her father first.”
When her stepdaughter comes to her for help, Burt’s heart swells. “It’s a wonderful feeling when my stepdaughter needs me because of who I am,” Burt says.
“Whether it’s a connection to reading and literature or even buying clothes together, it’s special when she reaches out to me.”
When Burt’s daughter spends time with her father and his wife, Burt hopes the girl goes to her stepmother for help. At other times, her daughter calls Burt for help, especially when the teen is working on a long-term project that she started at Burt’s house.
In Burt’s family, the school issue is made easier because both girls are good students and do their homework without nagging from parents or stepparents. Burt attends her stepdaughter’s performances and school events, but she is not active at her school, which is located in a nearby town, and does not attend her stepdaughter’s parent-teacher conferences.
Burt understands how easily school conflicts can crop up as children shift between two households. “The complicated things are different rules and different expectations in general,” she says. Rules about everything from television to bedtime to junk food can differ, with the child expected to juggle family life at two separate households, including relationships with stepparents and stepsiblings.
Stepparenting: Homework, Studying, and Grades
Susan Wisdom, author of Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family, counsels families about school issues—and has negotiated them in her own blended family. “You’ve often got competing points of view and values, and you’re competing for the affection of the child,” she says. “It’s a sticky wicket for sure.”
Wisdom recalls a parent-teacher conference years ago for her stepson. His teacher told her the boy wasn’t doing his homework and was performing poorly. “I broke into tears,” she says. “I told her there was nothing I could do. He’s not my child.”
Like Wisdom, stepparents often feel powerless when their stepchildren have poor study habits. Even if the stepparent tries to encourage education at home, the child might get a different message at the other parent’s home. And often, the poor performance in school is connected to the feelings a child has about her parents’ divorce and remarriage.
Wisdom recommends that couples strengthen their relationship with each other to respond in a positive and consistent manner to the kids’ needs. “When you get to an impasse, you have to ask, ‘What can we do better?’” Wisdom says. “We have to look at ourselves and ask if we need help.”
A family therapist, school counselor, or child psychologist might be able to help couples work through school-related stepfamily tensions and conflicts. Couples can also reinforce their connection by communicating honestly, coparenting with the current and ex-spouse, and clarifying their values and expectations.
Often, children need time to accept a stepparent as a homework helper, confidante about school issues, and supporter in their education. If a stepparent disagrees with how Mom or Dad is handling a school issue, often he has to step back and remain silent. “For better or worse, the biological parent drives the train,” Wisdom says.
But over time, the stepparent can build trust and work toward playing a greater role, Wisdom says. “Show the kids you’re in it for the long haul.”
Stepparents may feel like they need to be perfect around their stepchildren in order to build trust. But that’s an impossible goal, Wisdom says. “You have to be real and normal,” she says, adding, “You are going to have blowups and feel discouraged.”
But along the way, stepparents can build a connection with their stepchildren that, while different from the relationship between biological parent and child, is still an important one.
Burt’s 5 Tips for Stepparents
- Don’t expect too much too soon. Kids need time to adjust to a stepparent. Don’t expect the child to immediately welcome a stepparent as an authority figure or confidante.
- Identify strengths. Make sure the child knows the stepparent’s academic strengths—and willingness to help. If Dad never took Spanish in school, the stepmom who did might be just the right person to help.
- Clarify expectations and roles. It’s tough for any child to navigate two separate households. Be sure your child knows your rules, and the stepparent’s role.
- Put the child’s needs first. This is crucial when dealing with ex-spouses and school issues. Don’t fight with or bad-mouth the ex-spouse in front of the child, either at home or at school.
- Communicate often with your child. Find out what she’s feeling about her new, expanded family. Help her find solutions to disagreements with stepparents, clashes with stepsiblings, and other conflicts that inevitably will come up.
Amid the pitfalls, Burt reassures stepparents, “You can still have wonderful, deep, rich relationships with your stepchildren.”