I am an offbeat stepmama to two beautiful stepsons with different mothers, ages nine and one-and-a-half. In their other homes, they live relatively healthy, active lives and they are well looked after and cared for in conventional ways. They have conventional toys, are socialized according to gender (with an emphasis on heterosexuality), and are educated about nutrition using common standards.
In our home, we put a little more value on the differences of people instead of conformity, we don’t find encouraging heterosexuality to be important, and we are vegan. These are key differences in our outlook on life but we are struggling to find a peaceful way to raise the kids without them feeling like both choices aren’t equally as valuable. Both ways are valid ways to think and live.
How do non-custodial offbeat parents teach the children their views without disparaging the other household? — Laurel
Comments on How can we share our values and views with my step-kids without insulting their other home?
I’m so excited to read what everyone has to say. Thank you so much, Offbeat Mama, for running my question!
In our home, we each have a bio-kid from a previous marriage. One EX is a fundamentalist Christian, we are Atheist. M will pout and often times throw a tantrum that we don’t pray before meals. We tell her that we don’t and won’t pray because we don’t believe in God or praying, but she can if she wants to. We also reprimand the unsavory behavior. She is only 4 so we aren’t going gung ho on explaining our beliefs. We are going to wait till she’s a little older.
would it be an alternative for you to “say thanks” before the meal instead of praying? you could hold each others hands or say a little fun rhyme or do whatever suits you – because frankly, at four I think it´s more the ritual than the “praying to god” that´s important for kids.
It sounds to me like the way she does it suits her fine!
I think you’re on the right track since you stated that diversity and difference is important to you. I believe that if you couch it in different families believe different things or work differently, that it’s not making one parent better than the other. I wouldn’t necessarily be preachy about it, but as a kid of divorce there were definitely different rules and values at each of my parents’ homes and we were so tuned into that.
You may also want to consider exposing them to different cultures and ways of living to further explore that different component.
Well put 🙂
Thanks! We’re trying to incorporate lessons about other cultures and the way other people live but it’s hard when we only see him every two weeks or so. (Sometimes more but that’s at sporting events, etc.)
You said that you focus on peoples differences. Well there you go on the right track already. You can share your views and beliefs while teaching how to respect others views as well. If it comes to seem like you are pushing them, then encourage them top share their other families views more actively with you. Let them know that you know that people are different, but as long as you know why you stand for what you do, its ok.
Kids watch everything we do and listen whether we think they do or not. I think that simply by living your beliefs, your stepkids will be exposed to your value system. Having some conversations when you see things that you agree/disagree with and asking their thoughts will help get your thoughts across as well.
This. I think as parents, we tend to sweat this stuff way more than the kids do. In my previous marriage, where we had a fairly-different kind of household than my ex-stepdaughter’s other home, we just let things flow for the most part and she stayed in step. When it came up (very rarely), her father would just say, “we do different things in different households.”
Now the two of *us* are divorced, and hold to that. The children are up later and eat more candy at his house, and they know not to expect that of me. 😉 And vice versa to some of the “benefits” of my house. Neither kid seems to question it at all yet, and they are 5 and 8.
Yup non-judgemental discussions will do it. Approach it as though each household has a gift to offer. I was a seriously counter-culture teen and my family was totally supportive of that. However, no one ever gave me any information about how to be counter-culture in a mainstream world. I was in my 30’s before I felt like I had a clue about how to integrate myself into what was going on around me.
We are in a similar situation. My fiancé’s daughter is lives with her mother in Texas, eats a ton of fast food, watches a ton of tv, and goes to vacation bible school. We are atheists but have a Jewish home, eat mostly healthy (and NO fast food), and try to value activities and reading over tv (although we are not anti-tv in general). There are times when she is visiting us in Florida when these lifestyles seem to clash. We explain it as “this is what we believe and why” or “this is what we do and why,” not, “this is what you should believe.” We make it clear that we expect her to make her own choices as she gets older, and we work hard to not make it a competition, while still being honest and open about our values.
Maybe you could start by talking about differences in your own home? My husband and I agree on many things, but not on others (Republican-Democrat, Vegetarian-Omnivore, Christian-Jewish, you get the idea). We’ve always agreed that perhaps the best way to start talking about differences is to start with the ones in our home – it says “people who disagree on lots of things can still get along, even love each other and get married and it works just fine.” If they know difference exist in ONE home and can co-exist, maybe it will be easier to understand how differences can exist between two homes.
I think the other big part is to make clear that if they chose to identify more with the other home (they want to be omnivores, they behave more conventionally), make sure they know that choosing that won’t make them any less loved by you, less welcome in the home, or anything like that. You can share your values with them, but that doesn’t mean they have to accept them. All you can do is put this stuff out there and see if they want to accept it. If they reject your values, make sure that they know that doesn’t mean rejecting your home. However, you can make it clear to them that since the adults are the heads of the home, in your house, you have an expectation that they will respect your values and rules. That’s a good lesson to learn regardless of where they are.
With that last bit of advice about adults being the head of the house, I would be careful not to overemphasise “My house, my rules” because it could send the message that they are visitors in my home, rather than feeling at home themselves.
Jay, I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to tell children that adults are those in charge of setting the values and rules of the home and that, while they are there, those rules are expected to be obeyed. I don’t think that is limited to kids, either. I make it very clear to houseguests we have that I am an ethical vegetarian, and that I will not cook or prepare meat (unless it is some sort of an emergency, like anemia). They can prepare it themselves or my husband can, but I’m not. Full stop. That is the risk you take with kids – they may choose to say, “well, I like to eat meat, so I prefer to stay in the house where I’m allowed to eat meat.” It’s up to Laurel and her husband to figure out how far they are willing to bend on the issue. Like I said, you can’t control whether kids accept or reject your values. They may reject, and that’s a part of life. I don’t think that means that both houses cannot be their homes, but it does mean that the homes have rules set by the adults, and kids are expected to respect those rules when they’re in the home. Even if you’re like me and grew up in one home for 18 years, you had adults in the home who set the rules and values and expected compliance. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Well, everyone has their style and it’s important to find it. My parents never once said “My house, my rules” to me. My mother was a “this is your house too, and we’re going to learn to live together” sort of person. It worked fine on me. Not all parents are rule-setting parents and that’s okay.
As long as you don’t belittle the choices of the other adults in their lives and vice versa I think you will be doing a great job of exposing the kids to different lifestyles and showing the kids that it’s okay for people to live differently, and I really think that’s all you can be doing at this point. I think the emphasis being putting on heterosexuality is a little tricky but in that situation you just have to lead by example and be a place that the kids can go to ask questions when the time comes. I think with the age that the kids are they might be too young to have overt conversations about the differences in their home lives and it could unfortunately lead to tensions between families. Wait until the kids come to you about this stuff. Eventually the kids will be old enough to take an active role in their view of the world, through asking questions and making their own decisions, and up until then you just have to lay the groundwork for them to be open minded people, again just by setting an example. Good luck!
In addition, I would say that kids are very resilient and are capable of learning different sets of rules or norms. Even the difference between the way things are done at home and the way they’re done at school is an example of this. Most kids are good at categorizing things like that to a particular place. And by exposing them to multiple norms, you’re helping them to be become flexible people.
I don’t really have much to add as far as advice goes, since I’m a newbie step-girlfriend (calling myself a stepmom doesn’t feel right, yet…) My boyfriend and I haven’t had any issues with his son’s mother’s values differing from ours, it’s mainly been an issue of difference in rules in each household. But Little Dude is thriving. *:) He knows that things are different at Pappa’s house than they are at Mamma’s, and that’s just the way it is. Every household is different.
I just want to thank Offbeat Mama for running Offbeat/Stepmom related articles. It’s SUPER HARD to find quality content like this anywhere else. Love you, ladies! And other stepmoms, PLEASE KEEP SUBMITTING STORIES!!!! <3
Um I am TOTES loving the name “step-girlfriend”. That is totally what I feel like. I’m not a step-mommy yet, but not just His Girlfriend.
I am the chiild of a situation kinda like this. Basically my parents are divorced and have–let’s say–different values. When I was younger, all the adults involved did try to respect each other’s values but it was still as confusing as hell for me. In fact, part of what I found so confusing was how seemingly nonchalant they were about REALLY important stuff.
Let’s face it, no one thinks “all choices are equal” about every choice and there are something where either one parent is right or the the other. As a kid, I didn’t get having to tiptoe around in a co-parenting situation and so to me it just loooked like my parents lacked the courage of their convictions.
I don’t really know how it could have been done differently. I am sure co-parenting with an ex is not easy, especially when you are not on the same page about everything. One thing I know would have helped would have been if my parents would not have sort of ignored what I believed even if they ignored what each other believed. For example, my mother is religious. Dad is not. I share my mother’s faith. I remember how lonely I felt at my dad’s house when I was little kneeling alone by my bed to say my evening prayers because he wouldn’t join me. I remember walking to the nearest Orthodox Church alone on Sunday on the weekends at his house from the time I was 11. These things made me hate being at his house and contributed to why I stopped going to his house. I knew that my dad didn’t believe in God and frankly I didn’t care (I am a VERY liberal Christian) but I needed him to know and acknowledge that I did.
I am sure none of this helped but remember, kids watch what you are doing. Not just what you say.
Any suggestions of ways you feel your father could have better acknowledged and respected your beliefs? I can see how this would be tricky, considering that for him to pray or attend church with you wouldn’t fit with his own beliefs, but also left you feeling isolated. Any suggestions on how a parent in this situation could be supportive while still being honest about their own beliefs? What would have made you feel more supported?
Oh, I get that it was tricky! And I defintely see the whole thing from a completely different angle as an adult. I mean, I get the complexity of the situation now. Then I just felt really alone—and so different from my dad, his wife and stepkids (my sister stopped visiting my dad long before I for a host of completely unrelated to religion/ideological reasons).
Here’s what adult me would say (perhaps not to the satisfaction of kid me, but then I was a difficult child 😉 ):
A. My dad associated my faith and all its expressions with my mom–whom he didn’t like much. And frankly, I did too. The difference was I loved my mom. At four and five, the reason I wanted to say my nightly prayers was two-fold. The first reason was that I did (and still do) get spiritual comfort from prayer. The second was that it reminded me of my mom. These were both kinds of comfort that I needed in the less-“home” feeling enviroment of my dad’s house. I am sure that made my dad feel horrible, but that’s the way it was. When I was very small, it would have meant everything in the world to me if he had stayed in my bedroom with me while I said my nighttime prayers and then tucked me into bed. I still feel like crying when I think of crawling out of bed and kneeling down in that dark bedroom to pray. He didn’t have to pray with me. But he could have waited five minutes for me to complete an important part of my night time ritual.
2. Also, while I know you can’t leave a four year old alone at a church–you can leave a ten year old alone in services. My dad refused to get up on Sunday morning and at least driven me to church. It was stupid to make me walk. All it said to me was he had no respect for what I believed or, frankly, what made me feel at home and loved.
3. And this is probably the one that some people will disagree with–I had a room at my dad’s house that was supposed to be “my bedroom” and yet I was never allowed to keep icons (I am Greek Orthodox for the record) up in my bedroom–even when I was there. My stepmother said they “wigged” her out. That felt incredibly hurtful, was totally disrespectful, and told me that room was not really mine. My bedroom had–and still has–icons in it. And, by the way, we are not talking like walls of memento mori, I mean like a Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary.
4. When it was Lent and they knew I was fasting, they could have made some effort to provide food I could eat or not gotten angry when I didn’t eat the giant steaks they made.
So there are three suggestions. I want to stress again that I get that it is a tough situation. I wouldn’t have wanted then and I don’t want now for my dad to have to do something that is against his beliefs. I just don’t want to feel like I “picked” my mom because I believe in God, because I practice her faith which is (inconviently enough for my dad and my relationship the faith of her ancestors). I still see my father about twice a year. Around the holidays, but never on them. At the end of the day, I think that the problem is that my dad assumes that the god I worship is the god he rejects–some angry sky monster. He assumes that I fast and pray and go to church because I “picked” my mom. None of that is true. But at this point our relationship is such that neither of us are willing to start the conversation.
That doesn’t really help though, does it? Sorry 🙁
Actually, there are four suggestions. I can count. Opps!
Honestly, I think it is the responsibility of the adult in the situation to respect their child. Religion is a legitimate choice, and you had no choice but to respect his. Perhaps watching you pray at night to a God he did not believe in was too much for him. Perhaps having his little girls room decked out with religious iconography went too far against the grain. Ok, we’ll give him that.
But he could have driven you to church on Sunday and dropped you off. I bet he would have if it were for sports training. And respecting that you’re on a limited diet for less than 2 months of the year simply is not hard. At the very least you should not be punished for following your beliefs. Had you been completing a detox for health reasons no doubt it would have been okay.
He did not have to accept your beliefs. But he could at least of respected them.
Thank you! It means so much for me to hear that. Really. Thank you.
I absolutely agree with this. His actions seem punitive – not the respecting of differences we’re talking about here in this thread.
so i’m not the person you asked for a suggestion but i have one from my own situation that may fit. i’m christian and my hubby is not. i wish he would occasionally attend church with me just for company and support (social situations alone are **very** difficult for me) but i don’t push it. but he is supportive and respectful of my differing views in other ways. one way, that i can’t love him enough for, is every night he reminds me to say my prayers. and even though i stress that i don’t need him to do it, he mutes or pauses the tv so there aren’t any noise distractions. he doesn’t pray, i don’t think he even believes it has any value other than the psychological aspects (like meditating) but he knows its important to me and never says anything against it. a parent who doesn’t pray can probably help a lot just by being in the room and supporting it as part of a normal bedtime (or whatever time) routine if that’s what the child is comfortable with from their other home.
This is a tough one, looking at it from a former step child’s perspective. Maybe the best way to go about it is by using “this is how we like it” phrases. When a child asks why you don’t eat meat, for example, you can just say “we like to eat food that comes from plants rather than animals.” this makes it into a preference, rather than a judgement. If the child asks why, you can say something like “We feel it’s the best way for us to help the environment/animals/stay healthy” etc. This implies that there are many ways to do these things, but this is the way that works best for you. It leaves it open that other ways are just as good if they work better for other people.
It can be really hard to keep things non-judgemental between two houses that have very different values. My fiance and I struggle with this a lot as we raise his 7yo daughter. We try to be as accepting as possible but say that we do A-B-C here and we know they do X-Y-Z there.
We accept it because everyone is different – the key is being to get along with everyone. It can be really hard at times. But even though her dad is more of an atheist and I’m an agostic/catholic/buddhist cause I can’t make up my mind, we make the point of going to a Unitarian Universalist with her, so we can expose her to more tolerant beliefs than she gets from her fundamentalist-leaning grandmother.
Plus we BITE our tongues a lot. I’d rather she figured things out for herself than hear me say negative things, so she doesn’t try to rationalize them later.
I just want to chirp in and say that I really enjoy this discussion, even though I’m not a stepparent, I think it’s so important to raise children in a way that honors and respects the immense diversity on our planet. I want all of my child’s friends to feel welcome in our home. I want my own child to feel loved and respected even if he chooses very different values than my own. And that’s hard, when there are definitely certain beliefs that are so counter to my own. I appreciate hearing from all the other wise and awesome Offbeat Parents out there!
We have taken the general stance of “This is how we do it here and this is why”. My stepdaughter is 10 and generally catches on to nuance pretty well, so her adjustment between houses hasn’t been too confusing when it comes to routines. However, the big difference is in the emotional environment of each home, which I have a hard time not being judgy about (i.e. no emphasis on education, open favoritism of siblings). The best advice I’ve ever received was from a friend of mine who has had five (!) different stepmoms. She said never say anything negative about the other parent directly to the child no matter how hard it may be. All the good faith you spent time building can be totally ruined by a comment that doesn’t seem so bad to you but really cuts to the core of the child. I think of this advice every time I am even remotely tempted to say they do it wrong “over there”. I don’t know if this advice is helpful to your situation in particular, but any time we stepmoms help each other is an awesome thing.
You will save yourself SO MUCH trouble if you keep your mouth shut about the other parent. I was lucky that my stepmother never bad mouthed my mom, or my stepdad never bad mouthed my dad, but other people have and as a child that made my brain go, “DANGER WILL ROBINSON THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS.” Of course, it’s usually not that black and white, but as a kid, your mom and dad are the ones who keep you alive, and therefore they have your loyalty. It’s okay for ME not to like my mom, but it’s not okay for YOU not to like my mom. That sort of thing.
Honestly, maybe don’t overthink it? You can’t encourage either heterosexuality or homosexuality. They’ll just be what they are. So the important thing is to stress that you accept all people regardless of their sexuality and hope they get the message of tolerance from you.
The vegan thing? Just make food and don’t make a big deal. They can eat your food when they’re at your house and their mom’s food when they’re at her house and maybe it won’t seem weird to them.
I think you’re missing a lot of key elements here.
You CAN encourage heterosexuality. That doesn’t mean your kid won’t be gay if they are, but it can set them up for a lifetime of emotional pain.
And yes, if a child eats meat at one house and not at the other, it will come up. You ask your kid what they want for dinner tonight, and I guarantee that they will pick something they are used to having, even if they get it at school all the time and not at your house. In my house, we never ate chicken nuggets. Didn’t stop me from asking for them, and having to have it explained that we didn’t cook that at our house. One day, one of those kids is going to ask for mac and cheese with hot dogs for dinner. These vegan parents need an answer for that. “Just ignore it, it will go away, they can figure it out on their own” isn’t an answer.
I have no advice but I have to say I love the way you phrased this question so much – the fact that you’re so respoectful of the differences between your families is obvious, and that alone will go a long way to validating all your stepsons’ experiences.
They need to be able to understand that your choices are not a judgment against their other family members. Choices just are what they are, and you decided to live a certain way because it’s what you feel is right for you and beneficial to the people in your life.
When talking about it, anywhere you’re mentally saying “better” or “best,” find another word. Beneficial, healthy, whatever… it makes it about helping instead of right vs. wrong, which is a hard concept for kids to get anyway.
It takes time to teach kids that differences aren’t judgments, and the message is sent more clearly through little moments than big talks.
You may have some epic conversations about lifestyle choices. But day to day, your reaction to things they tell you about their other homes will say volumes more to them about whether or not you respect their other parents. If you have habits like rolling your eyes when you hear about something inane from their other home, try to switch to a more neutral reaction.
Also….I took one law class once upon a time and learned that in some contexts the word “concur” doesn’t mean “wholly agree.” It is also used when two parties come to the same conclusion for different reasons.
You may need to employ that mentality when supporting another mom’s choices. Like if she refuses to let her son wear pink because pink is for girls, you probably would be seen as undermining to let him wear it when he’s with you. But you might make clear to him that, “I don’t think pink is a girl’s color, but we need to respect your mom’s feelings about this.”
I’m not a step anymore, but I was for quite a few years. The other mom was the type who would give her 10 month old a happy meal, and I’m all organic, so… it took a lot to establish good habits in myself where she was concerned.
Thank you all so much for talking about this. I have a 3 year old step daughter (along with our 22 month old daughter) whom we have once a week. She is a very bright, gorgeous creature but has started asking for lollies as soon as she gets to our house and wants to watch tv all day long. We’ve been scheduling fun things to do like swimming or searching the nearby forest for fairies but the food thing is starting to become an issue. We tell her that we don’t have sweets at our house because they’re not good for your teeth and don’t make you healthy like other food but I wonder what she’s telling her Mum (whom we have no contact with at all) about what we feed her. It’s a struggle every week in an otherwise harmonious day. Not sure what the best way to combat it is…
Wow this is a great topic and one I am dealing with as in a month I’m going to be a step mom to an insanely smart ten year old. I went into this KNOWING NOTHING about kids. I’m not even too keen on babies. We’ve been together 3.5 years now and I’ve played it by ear. The kid is in the 4th grade and reads on an 11th grade level so I was intimidated. He has to respect me but I try to keep an open dialogue. It’s gotten to the point he even TALKS to me! I just keep listening. I know he has 2 baby brothers at home and his over whelmed mom doesn’t have the time for him she used to and I think he’s making up for it with me.
Our house is different from his. We eat healthier. I was worried this would cause an issue. My mom told me, “Don’t make a big deal out it, sit the plate in front of him and see what he does.” Mostly he complains AFTER he finds out what it is but he’s come to like squid, sushi(not raw) and peas, things I’d never expect a kid to eat. I’ve decided to not worry about this and treat it like a big experiment and let him lead the way. We don’t let him make the rules but I follow his lead and it’s working! Trust me, no one is as surprised about this as me! I asked him if he thought I’d make a good stepmom and I got a big hug around my middle and he said, “You’re awesome!” So I guess that means I’m passing. Of course in three years he’ll probably dye his hair black, start wearing eye liner and refuse to talk to me but I hope not. The not talking part I mean; eyeliner doesn’t phase me. lol