John Rosemond August 2016 Columns
Copyright 2016, John K. Rosemond
Stepfathers Must Have Complete Disciplinary Discretion
Q: The woman I’ve been dating—a single mom with two young boys—and I have decided to get married. My only reservation, and I’ve told her this, concerns the stepfather thing. I’m not clear and really neither is she on the proper role and responsibilities of stepfathers, especially in the area of discipline. She reads your column religiously and told me to ask you for advice. It would be most appreciated.
A: I happen to have extensive experience in this area, given that I grew up with a stepfather in what is today known as a step-family. Before my mother remarried when I was almost seven, she gave me some invaluable information and very good advice. The invaluable information consisted of telling me that when I was in my stepfather’s home, he was “the father.” Her very good advice was that I was to respect and obey him as well as I respected and obeyed her, which was a high standard. My mother’s little talk let me know that her primary allegiance was no longer to me; it was to her new partner, as it should have been.
The reason that the risk of divorce is higher in a second marriage where one or both parties is bringing children in tow is because my mother’s attitude is no longer the norm. In fact, even such highly respected people as Dr. Phil advise that in step-families, a parent should only discipline his or her biological children. Mincing no words (my habit), that is extremely bad advice. It sets up a situation where parenting conflicts are nearly inevitable.
The problem actually begins before the second marriage. Following divorce, a single mom tends to center her life around her kids. (I realize, by the way, that there are many variations on custody and visitation these days, so I have decided to keep things simple and talk in terms of the most common of those variations—the mother has primary custody.) Her eventual second husband, no fool, sees what is happening and realizes he must successfully “court” both her and her kids. He tries his best to be a fun guy. In the process of all this, and on both sides of this coin, very dysfunctional precedents are being set.
After the marriage, the precedents in question lead to a set of predictable difficulties: the children complain to their mother when step-dad tries to discipline; mom reinforces their resentment by adopting a territorial, protective attitude toward them; the stepfather begins to feel that he is a “second-class citizen” in his own home.
I am firm in my conviction that from the get-go, the step-parent, whether male or female, must have complete disciplinary discretion where step-children are concerned. In other words, there is no special set of rules or restrictions that apply uniquely to step-parents. When the parties involved believe that “step” is the operative word, as opposed to “parent” or “family,” that’s when the problems begin. As someone else has put it, “When you think of yourself as a step, it becomes inevitable that you will be stepped on.”
And to those moms—and I’ve met more than a few—who don’t trust their new husbands to discipline properly, my question becomes: “Then why did you marry him in the first place?”
By the way, most mental health professionals claim that kids resent it when they are disciplined by step-parents. My retort is “So what?” Kids usually resent being disciplined, period, no matter who the discipliner is. Besides, kids do not know what they need; they only know what they want, and they usually want what is not in their best interests. Which is why they need parents for at least eighteen years.
Smart Car for Teens May Not Be the Smart Choice
Greg Fulton thinks his teenage daughter, who’s already hit three solid objects with her car—thankfully, no humans or other moving vehicles included—would do better with a car that comes equipped with blind-spot/lane-change alert (notifies driver when another vehicle is approaching on either side), lane assist (gently guides car, if it begins to drift, back into proper lane), backup camera display, backup alerts, pedestrian sensor, automatic braking, and a radio that won’t come on unless everyone is buckled in. Said auto also has a computer program that monitors a teen driver’s performance, and can be activated without a teen’s knowledge.
The car in question is a 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. Suffice to say, Fulton’s article in the July 2016 issue of American Way, American Airlines’ in-flight magazine, was blatant promotion disguised as a human-interest piece. His point is that all of this technology reduces distraction and makes the teen driving experience much safer not to mention less anxiety-arousing for parents.
I know teenagers fairly well. I was one once. I’ve lived with two. I’ve written a book about them and fielded many questions concerning them. Trust me, Fulton is engaging in wishful thinking. The problem is that his article is likely to convince anxious parents that the Malibu smart-car is a wish come true. So, after concluding that Fulton was giving downright dangerous advice, I decided to act as his foil.
In so doing, I will come straight to the point: Do not buy your teenager a Chevy Malibu that’s been supposedly teen-proofed. Said automobile is not likely to—as the headline on Fulton’s article promised—“steer young motorists away from dangerous distractions.” More likely, a teen driver will think that the automated protections built into said automobile mean he/she does not need to pay diligent attention to what is going on around him.
I can hear a typical teen’s shrill protest: “But you told me, so did that sales guy, that the car would tell me if I was about to hit something!” Assuming, that is, that said teen is still capable of protesting. Let’s hope so.
What the sales guy didn’t say was that there are no guarantees, that the system is not fail-safe or fool-proof. That the automatic lane correction feature, for example, doesn’t work if the lane markers are indistinct. That the automatic breaking device isn’t going to stop you in time if you’re following too close to begin with. That the blind-spot detection technology isn’t guaranteed to prevent an accident if, say, a teenage driver and a driver two lanes away both decide to change lanes at the same time. And so on.
I know how teenagers think. For one thing, they are highly prone to taking things literally. A parent who buys a smart-car for a teen isn’t going to be able to explain both that the car’s technology is there to prevent an accident and that the technology is no reason not to be paying diligent attention at all times. A teen is going to hear “We bought this car for you because it has technology that will prevent an accident.” That probably is not, by the way, what his parents said. That’s what he heard his parents say.
So, he gets behind the wheel of his new Malibu and something bad happens. Maybe he says to his friends, “Hey! Watch this!” And instead of being contrite, he’s indignant. It’s the car’s fault! That’s how teenagers think. Nothing is their fault.
So when it comes to buying a car for a teenager, buy stupid. The stupider the car, the smarter the teen driver. And vice versa. Come to think of it, of every ten stories I hear about teen drivers wrecking cars, nine of them are new cars. Buy your teen a used car. At least ten years old. Used cars are no fun to drive. That’s the point.
Selecting the Right Private School
Q: We are looking for a private school for our 4-year-old. Regardless of the school we ultimately choose, we want to keep him there through eighth grade at least. We live in an suburban area so we have a lot of options to choose from. Our son is intelligent, creative, and very imaginative. Do you have a recommendation?
A: These days, the educational options, especially in high-density population areas, can be daunting. Since you’ve already narrowed your search to private schools, the first thing to decide is whether you’re looking for a religious or non-religious (secular) experience. From there, decide whether you think your child would do better in a more structured, traditional environment that emphasizes classroom discipline and the “Three R’s” or a more creative, child-centered one.
Most religious schools, including schools that are loosely affiliated with churches and synagogues, put some emphasis on moral education, which I happen to believe is a good thing. They also tend to be fairly traditional, which is especially true of most Catholic schools, which also tend to have the most demographically diverse student populations of all private schools.
The average age and average experience (years teaching) of the faculty is also important, as is the teacher turnover rate in any particular school. Obviously, a high turnover rate is a red flag as is a faculty with relatively few years of experience. Perhaps the most telling indication of problems behind the scenes is a high turnover at the top (principal, director, head of school).
Private schools tend to tout their average achievement test scores, the number of graduates that go on to top-flight colleges, and so on. I don’t put a lot of stock in those sorts of statistics because research has shown that student achievement is primarily a matter of parent education and expectations, not the school one attends. When parents place a high value on education and their academic expectations are high, public and private school kids do equally well. That is, however, an “on average” finding and may not be true of any particular school.
When all is said and done, I am biased toward two educational philosophies that are, in fact, somewhat disparate: Montessori and Classical.
A Montessori education is very child-centered, but in its original form also emphasizes classroom discipline and student responsibility while also allowing for a good amount of independence and peer collaboration.
A classical education places emphasis on learning the core “liberal arts” grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In a classical school, Latin is usually introduced in the upper elementary grades.
Both Montessori and classical educators claim that their philosophies, however different (for example, Montessori education does not emphasize memorization while classical does), are in keeping with a child’s natural developmental process. Paradoxically, I like both approaches, but for different reasons. My experience has led me to conclude that both Montessori and classical educators are highly committed to the needs of their students.
In the final analysis, if you like a particular school and support its educational philosophy, it will most likely turn out to be a good “fit” for your child.
Stepparents Should Have Authority over Teens, Too
Q: In a recent column, you advise that stepparents have complete disciplinary authority over all children who live in or visit the home, but do you feel the same policy should apply when the stepparent joins the family when the kids are teenagers instead of younger children?
A: Your question is of great importance in a parenting culture where so many parents are bringing children into second marriages. It is also important for adults in so-called “step-families” to understand that the majority of mental health professionals are giving decidedly bad advice concerning this issue: to wit, that parents should only discipline their own—as in, biological or adoptive—children. As I said in the column to which you referred, this is a recipe for a second divorce.
My authority in this area rests on personal as well as professional experience. My parents divorced early in my life and my mother remarried when I was seven. Before the second marriage took place, she informed me that what my stepfather-to-be told me to do, I was to do. Period. Under no circumstances was I to come complaining to her about his rules, instructions, or discipline. I did not like it but my mother’s policy was clearly in the best interests of our new family; therefore, it was in my best interests as well.
The party line in child and family psychology has it that this arrangement causes resentment in a non-biological child; thus, their position. Mental health professionals essentially advise, as they generally have for fifty years, that a child’s feelings about an issue should rule or at least be of significant consideration.
Two facts should be taken into account: First, children do not know what is in their best interests; second, a child’s emotional reactions are often irrational in that they do not reflect either a wide-angle or long-range view. That assessment applies significantly to teenagers.
With that in mind, yes, a stepparent’s authority in the home ought to be unequivocal, but that requires a pre-existing condition, which is that both the biological parent and the stepparent are on the same page concerning child-rearing matters. That also requires a pre-existing condition, which is that the primary relationship in the “new” family be between husband and wife. When mom and dad are not on the same page, it simply means one or both of them values relationship with child or children over relationship with spouse. Said another way, when married adults are husband and wife first, mom and dad second, agreement concerning child-rearing issues will be relatively easy.
On the other hand, if the biological parent “identifies” with her children’s emotional reactions to the stepparent’s rules, instructions, and discipline and responds protectively—which is an operational definition of co-dependency—the new family’s integrity is in deep trouble.
The bottom line is that as my mother did, people ought to get these issues straightened out before a new marriage-with-children takes place. In this case, striking while the iron is cold is the best policy.
Take the Drama out of Math Homework
Q: Our sixth-grade son has always been an excellent math student. This year, however, he melts down every time he does math homework. Within minutes, he becomes highly agitated, begins crying, and says it’s too hard and he can’t do it. We spoke with his teacher who says that he’s having no problem in class. She had no explanation for what we’re seeing at home. When he begins crying, my husband usually goes to help him, but that only makes matters worse. Your advice would be much appreciated.
A: One can reasonably assume that sixth-grade math is more complex than fifth-grade math, but the teacher’s report effectively eliminates the possibility that your son reached his peak mathematical ability level toward the end of the last school year.
Let’s see…sixth grade, puberty, episodic emotional turmoil, lack of tolerance for frustration…I think I’ve got it! My diagnosis is tweenage math-specific self-drama syndrome (TMSSDS, confirmed by the fact that his father’s attempts to help only make matters worse. Drama begs for an audience, and no one is more inclined toward drama as the pre-pubescent tweenager.
In all fairness, while your son has always been an “excellent” math student, it may very well be that math is actually not his strong suit and that the jump from basic math to complex functions is giving him some trouble. But even if that’s the case, it remains a safe bet that his emotional displays are out of proportion to the actual degree of difficulty.
Dramatic professions of helplessness are typical of immature human beings of any age. When playing the victim attracts an audience, the immature human being of any age will invariably choose “I can’t” over “I can” even though “I can’t” is obviously self-fulfilling and, as such, self-defeating.
I recommend, first, that Dad stop running in to rescue said drama-factory from his math issues. He should tell your son that if he wants help, he should coherently ask for it and it will be given. If, however, son becomes agitated, Dad’s help is finished and will not resume that evening under any circumstances.
Second, make a rule that homework must be put away, finished or unfinished, at a certain time every evening, the actual time depending on after-school activities, when dinner is usually served, and bedtime on school nights. This new policy will promote some much-needed time management on your son’s part.
Third, inform your son that if he has a meltdown concerning math homework, his homework and book will be confiscated, upon which he can, if he chooses, wake himself up early in the morning and resume working on it.
It’s essential that your well-intentioned husband stops feeding the drama dragon and that your son be forced to bring it under control. Nothing short of consequences is going to accomplish that with a tween, believe me. If experience serves me well, I predict that TMSSDS will be cured within several weeks.