How To Best Support Your Child’s Other Father
Guest Post by Randell D. Turner, Ph.D.
DCG DADvisory Team Member
At a recent graduation ceremony, a father looked around as parents, family members, classmates, and friends hugged and took photos with the graduates. Through the crowd, he saw a man crying openly as he waited to hug her. As the two embraced, the father saw the emotion on the man’s face and heard him say to the girl, “I am so proud of you!”
The father was surprised by the man’s reaction, not because the girl’s achievement didn’t deserve recognition, but because the man was her stepfather. For the first time, the father truly realized the remarkable impact this stepfather had had on his daughter’s life. The father finally understood the depth of the stepfather’s love, even though the girl was not his own flesh and blood.
In the United States, nearly half of all children will live with a stepfather, foster father, uncle, or man other than their biological father sometime during their childhood. Yet many fathers are concerned when a new man enters the life of their children’s mother. They’ve heard, among other things, stories about stepfathers who abuse their stepchildren. And many biological fathers view the new man as a threat to the relationship they have with their children.
Tradition often contributes to this confrontational attitude.
As boys, many of us played games in which someone wins and everyone else loses. So as boys grow and eventually become fathers, many often see the world through this same prism. When another man comes into their children’s lives, he’s viewed as a rival for their affection. Instead of talking to the stepfather about working cooperatively to raise the children, many dads go out of their way to make sure the new man appears inferior in the children’s eyes. That way, dads believe they will remain in “first place” in a contest for their children’s love. They may not think about the benefits of a stepfather’s involvement.
When a stepfather or foster father is considered a partner rather than an adversary, however, extended co-parenting can be mutually-beneficial, not only for the men involved but especially for the children.
Building a parenting partnership might be as frightening for stepfathers as it is for biological dads. They might begin to establish a positive relationship merely by communicating through email or text. Putting feelings and ideas into words can give dads time to think about what they want to say and how best to say it. It’s then helpful to follow up to confirm the stepdad has received their message. Once communication is launched, dads and stepdads should talk about:
What are their children’s needs?
What are the children’s strengths?
How can both men encourage their children to develop them?
Where are the children struggling? and
How can dad and stepdad help them through any difficulties?
An excellent area for dads and stepdads to work together is school and homework. If they agree on routines, rules, and expectations related to school and homework – and dad and stepdad agree to aim for consistency in enforcing the rules – they can jointly create a more stable environment for the children’s development. The children will feel twice as important as they see two men working together toward their best interests. Dad’s cooperation with their stepfather also will help reduce or eliminate potential feelings of betrayal and guilt the children might have if they show they care for their stepfather.
Having a stepfather or foster father in their lives does not mean children need their fathers any less. In fact, as a separated or divorced dad, a biological father’s positive involvement is particularly important to children.
A father should take time to get to know his children’s stepfather in order to become more skilled at sensing when something is wrong. He should become aware of the stepfather’s needs, moods, personalities, and overall development as their children grow. By the same token, if children believe their father has a genuine interest in their lives (and not merely “going through the motions” of caring) they may be more willing to confide in him and share their thoughts and emotions when something is bothering them. A dad’s involvement and openness also can pave the way for children to have an equally honest relationship with their stepfather or foster father.
Many men work very hard to be good stepfathers, foster fathers, uncles, and role models. If children are lucky enough to have one of these good men in their lives, biological dads should try to get past any insecurities or jealousies they may have in order to work with this man for the sake of their children. Fathers and stepfathers/foster fathers will need to have patience, understanding, and often a sense of humor. But as with any potential long-term relationship, the benefits will come if they stick with it.
One man can make a positive difference in the life of a child. But two working together with the children’s best interests at heart can more than double the effect.
Randell Turner, Ph.D. is a dad to two daughters, granddad to seven grandchildren, an author, counselor, and a pioneer in the men’s and fatherhood movement. Specializing in healthy masculine intimacy, he has dedicated more than 20 years to working with men who feel broken, rejected, isolated, and lonely because of their struggles with “intimacy ignorance.” His personal and professional experience inspired the creation of “Rescuing the Rogue,” designed to equip men in forging intimate relationships to last a lifetime. For more information on his daddying work, visit his website Unbreakable Bond.