Q & A: Stepparent Rights



What parental rights do you think a stepparent should have over the natural parent's child?


First, I personally believe that every child should have the experience of growing up under the care and guidance of both of his/her biological parents--unless of course, either or both of them are not capable, fit, or willing to do the job--as is sometimes the case. Even under these circumstances, I believe that every effort should be made to preserve that child's relationship with his/her biological parents if doing so is a) possible, and b) can occur without putting the child in harm's way. In other words, I do not support stripping a biological parent of his/her rights or responsibilities toward their child unless they are unable and/or unwilling to do an adequate job of parenting the child. 

Second, it would be my wish that all biological parents, upon ending their spousal relationship, would be able to realize: a) that their OBLIGATION to jointly parent their kids doesn't end when they end their couple relationship, and b) that the difficulties they had in their relationship--that (apparently) couldn't be solved then, certainly won't be solved now. So these difficulties must now be set aside to clear the path for meeting the child's need for effective (co)parenting.

Separating/divorcing parents who are functioning well enough to understand these points, soon develop and implement a co-parenting plan that puts the child’s needs (for effective co-parenting) ahead of their own wishes—that all too often include “getting back at” their prior spouse. Importantly, by default, defining such a co-parenting plan automatically spells out the stepparent's responsibilities. They can be summarized as: supporting the biological parents in doing the best job possible of raising a healthy, happy and emotionally stable child. The less available or capable the biological parent is, the larger the role of the stepparent is likely to become. For example, if a child is in the stepparent's care, falls ill, and needs emergency medical treatment, I think it would be a very good idea for the stepparent to be able to authorize the treatment if the biological parent is unavailable, incapacitated or disinterested in the child’s well being. In summary then, I believe that the rights of the stepparent, ideally, should be assigned to support the role the biological parents—unless, of course, the (same-sex) biological parent will not, or cannot do an adequate job of parenting the child.

With regard to the day-to-day management of the child, I believe that the stepparent’s authority over the child should be drawn from the child’s relationship with their biological parent (i.e., the stepparent’s spouse). This requires:

a)       the biological and stepparent to be clear on their behavioural expectations,

b)       the biological parent to specify the extent to which he/she wishes to invest authority over the child in the stepparent, and

c)       the stepparent’s drawing his/her authority to enforce these standards through the relationship his/her spouse has with the child.  For example, the stepparent might exert his/her authority by saying: “In this house we…”.

Greater stepparent authority is only likely to be achieved a) as the stepparent and child develop a meaningful relationship (wherein the child ‘welcomes’ the stepparent’s authority) and the biological parent is able to “step back”, knowing that the stepparent’s authoritative actions stem from his/her genuine caring for the child.

Finally, some individuals feel that the stepparent should have no authority whatsoever over a stepchild. Others suggest that the stepparent’s authority should be very indirect, and restricted to supporting their spouse in the management of the child. Based upon my experience with stepfamilies, I don’t regard the first as being functional; and I see the second as being only “transitional”.  To elaborate, with regard to the “no authority whatsoever" position, in order to “be the best they can be”, children need to learn to function adaptively in a hierarchy. They need to know that adults are in charge, and to learn to function adaptively when adults are in charge. What, for example, would children learn at school if the teacher were not in charge? What will they learn by living in a situation where the hierarchy is clearly inconsistent with the world at large?  Under the “no authority whatsoever" position, it’s a safe bet that most children would behave very badly towards the stepparent. It’s quite clear this would be trying for the stepparent, but how would it be good for the child?

I believe that the “indirect only” notion is inconsistent with the fact that when caring adults and children share experiences together, over time, they tend to develop a fond regard for one another. This regard is likely to be expressed in the adult’s exercising authority over the child, and the child’s welcoming this authority. In my view, standing in opposition to this trend is tantamount to a wish to keep a relationship between the stepparent and stepchild from developing. 

To summarize, where the biological parent (say a dad) desires to be involved and is capable of making and executing (and is willing to make and execute) sound decisions on the behalf of his child, the stepparent should be assigned rights that are in support of the biological parent's wishes. If the biological parent is unavailable, disinterested, incapacitated, or only able to see through the lens of his own hurts and needs, the stepparent will, in all likelihood, require increasing authority, but it should be assigned in support of the biological parent who remains on the scene (say the mother). All of the rest will have to be earned through building a caring relationship with the child.

I trust that answers your question.


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