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Helping Husband Become a
Supportive Stepparent

QUESTION: I have remarried and have a seven-year-old and five-year-old from my first marriage. My husband has no children of his own. My seven-year-old has a learning disability and cannot read or write. My husband thinks he is just lazy. How do I get my husband to understand that encouragement can do so much for a child?

ANSWER: Your husband is new to fatherhood and you are right to take the lead in expressing your beliefs about your son, as well as your overall views on child rearing. It is possible that your spouse is reflecting his own upbringing, which may have been long on criticism and short on emotional support or individual differences.

Not having had children, your spouse may not have given much thought to parenthood. It is likely that he has not experienced two critical insights that are common to the process of becoming a parent. The decision to have a child provides opportunity to 1) reflect on our own childhood and 2) discover the ways your own child is different from yourself. It is necessary to turn a critical eye toward your own childhood in order to identify the kind of parent you want to be. It is also natural to try to understand others by identifying with them, before realizing that a child may indeed be uniquely equipped with strengths, weaknesses and sensitivities that are unlike our own.

Now that he has taken on the responsibilities of becoming a stepparent, it is your partner's job to identify how the way he was raised affects how he is responding to his own stepchildren. Give your husband the benefit of time and discussions about your own process of becoming a parent.

Given that you have already developed your own child-rearing philosophy and sensitivities to your individual children's needs, you are definitely several steps ahead. Engage in discussions about your beliefs and how you came to them. Share your perspective on what you believe contributes to a child's self-esteem and on the particular unique needs of each of your own children.

Ask your husband to reflect on his own relationship with his parents and their child-rearing philosophy. Did they encourage him? When he had difficulties did they make efforts to build his self-esteem and confidence, or make judgments about his "laziness"? It is also natural for your husband to experience some stirrings of jealousy if he sees you giving your child what his parents did not give him. This could result in his feeling critical towards your son, instead of encouraging.

I remember my own husband's journey as a stepparent. He initially repeated patterns of parent-child interactions that he had experienced growing up. (Remember that the concept of self-esteem was not even a part of many of our parents' awareness in raising us!) We had long (seemingly endless!) discussions of how to support a child's self-esteem, and what the job of parenting entailed.

Over a period of eight years, my husband grew to agree and implement many of these concepts, but not without initial disbelief and resistance. After all, if it was good enough for him, why did he have to change anything for this child? More significantly, these discussions caused him to look more critically at his own upbringing and make active choices about the kind of stepparent he wanted to be.

But growth often involves pain. Despite his deeply loving and positive connections with his own parents, this reflection on childhood brought up sadness that he did not get from his parents, what I wanted him to give this young boy. He came to his own acceptance that he could improve upon the last generation without stopping loving them! Over the years, he grew into the most supportive and encouraging stepfather I could have ever imagined or wanted for my children. Sometimes a good thing just takes time!

Invite your husband to become a part of the solution, instead of the problem. Your spouse's belief that your son is "lazy" contributes only negative energy to the situation. Be willing to listen to your husband's feelings, but insist that he consider a change in his own attitude, if he expects to facilitate a change in his stepson. If he wishes to motivate your child, encourage him to do so in a positive manner, and to understand any special needs a child may have.

Creating strategies for success or creative ways to pique your son's curiosity could result in greater effort to understand concepts that might otherwise be difficult for your son to grasp. Ask that your husband strive to accept your son's difficulties (and differences from himself) and find ways to help him cope, rather than criticize. You might discover that he can help your son develop much needed determination, if he pushes just hard enough, and in the right direction.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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