“My mom doesn’t make me do that!”  We’ve all heard it.  Our child’s biological parent has different rules, and our child likes those rules better than ours.  It is very easy to get into a battle of wills or to criticize their parents’ rules.   Those tactics, however, usually just lead to a spiral of arguments and anger.  There are better ways to defuse the situation and still enforce your structure.

Recognize that there may be an underlying message

What kids says to us is not always what they mean.  “My mom does X” may mean “I like that rule better.”  Most of the time, however, it’s code for something else.  They may be saying that they don’t belong in your home, but back with their biological parents.  They may feel that the entire situation is just wrong on a fundamental level.   They may not even know exactly what they think, but just know that your rule is one more proof that you aren’t supposed to be in their lives.

If you think there is another message in their complaint, you probably can’t address it directly.  Just acknowledge the emotion.  “I know it’s hard for you to have different rules.  We love you and these are the rules for this house.”

Make sure your partner is on board

It is vitally important that you and your spouse agree on the rules for your house.   First, your children will listen to their biological parent before they listen to you.  Second, and more critical, your kids will exploit any daylight they find between the adults in the home.  That is simply what kids do.  Finally, and most important, your kids need to see how adults in a functional relationship resolve disagreements.  Both of you will have to give in a little, and one of you will have to give in a lot.  I know how hard that can be, as giving in does not come naturally to me.  But I finally realized that having agreement was far more important than any rule.  Aside from safety or basic respect issues, your kids are better off with relaxed rules than with conflict between the two of you.

Don’t criticize the other parent’s rules

This principle is related to the principle that you should never criticize the child’s biological parent.  No matter what your opinion might be, it’s not relevant.  Children usually have strong tie to their biological parents and expressing any criticism will simply damage your relationship.  

You even need to be careful about explaining the reasons for your rules.  It’s all too easy for children to hear implicit criticism in your explanation.   They are mentally comparing the two sets of rules, and they may hear criticism about the other parent’s rules that you do not intend.  Sometimes you have a teachable moment with kids in explaining your reasoning, but those moments never come in the middle of an argument.  Usually the best explanation is simply, “We find these rules work best for our house here.”

Pick Your Battles

Finally, decide whether a given rule is worth the conflict that it causes.  Sometimes the kids might have a good reason that a given rule doesn’t work as well as you think.  Other times, they need to feel some sense of control over their environment.  We need to give structure to our kids, but that structure doesn’t have to be a cage.  The world won’t end if we let some things slide here and there.  We need to give our kids the same leeway that we give ourselves about rules.

If the rule is important, such as an issue of safety or respect, then stick with it.   Children are perfectly capable of understanding different sets of rules for different places.   You might even find it helpful to explain that these are “house rules” rather than your rules.  

Dealing with different standards between biological parents and stepparents is not easy for either you or the child.  Stay calm, give in where you can, and stand firm where you can’t.   Eventually this, too, will get better.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.