As I sit here thinking about all of the different facets of parenting, it occurs to me that we can think about them as falling into a kind of hierarchy. Here’s a rough sketch of what I mean, starting with the most basic qualities:
1. Caring for a child’s basic needs: providing food, water, warmth, shelter, safety.
2. Caring for a child’s health: providing care for illness and injury; providing good nutrition.
3. Enforcing basic rules (no coloring on the walls, no jumping on the sofa).
4. Extending “black and white” values (no hitting, no name-calling, say thank you).
5. Extending “grey area” values: gender roles, religion, politics.
6. Shaping their future: focusing on certain areas of education, sports vs. no sports, etc.
7. Guiding their young adulthood: college, boyfriends/girlfriends, marriage.
(I’ve left out affection—praise, validation, acknowledgement of thoughts and feelings, hugs, kisses, etc.—because to me these things should be included in every part of parenting.)
My observation is that the more basic a parenting facet is, the less territorial people feel about it. After all, most people agree on “black and white” values like saying please and thank you.
However, people start feeling territorial when parenting involves things that not everyone agrees on, like gender roles, religion, politics, ethics, education, marriage, and the like. Not only do adults have very different opinions on these kinds of matters, but children are aware of this fact. If a child knows that his mother feels very strongly about religion, for example, it’s likely that he’s going to feel like his stepmother is encroaching on his mother’s territory if she tries to influence his beliefs on that subject.
So if you’re worried that you look like you’re trying to take the place of your step-child’s mother, my advice would be to limit your parenting to black-and-white matters that affect your day-to day happiness. By this I mean basic respect for you, your partner, your home, and your family; for example, no back talk, no fighting, basic table manners at your table (i.e., if you drop food on the floor, pick it up, don’t talk and spit food at the same time), minor chores, cleaning up after themselves, and the like. Hopefully down the road, after building a relationship together, you’ll be able to share more of your opinions with your stepchild—but that’s for another post.
This might seem like an overstatement of the obvious for those of us who have been stepmothers for a while, but I wish I had thought about it like this when I first started out.