This article was first published in Stepparentmagazine.com
One of the biggest sources of conflict I see in step-families is how chores are assigned and who enforces the chores. Some people advise stepparents stay completely clear of any chore assigning and enforcement. While on the surface this seems like good advice, it’s advice that often leaves stepparents feeling powerless in their homes.
Each home is different. Each family structure is different. I’m going to outline some scenarios and possibilities and then suggest that you and your partner, and even the children, sit down together and create a system that works for you. There are some basics make this whole process easier and I’d recommend reading this article first (link to All is not Fair in Step-Family Chores).
Once you understand that there is no one size fits all, even within your own family unit, it becomes a lot easier to design a system that will work for all the members of your family. Recognising the impact of transition on both the kids and the adults, and how children moving from one family system to another impacts their capacity is the cornerstone of setting up a chore system that works.
Should Stepparents Manage Chores?
Yes, no, maybe, sometimes? Only you can figure out whether it’s appropriate for the stepparent in your home to have a strong voice in managing chores in your home. Some factors to consider what might work best for your family are outlined below.
If the stepparent is a main caregiver when the bioparent is not home, I think it’s imperative the stepparent has a mandate to set and enforce rules while they are the one doing the caregiving. It can seem sometimes that babysitters have more of a say when it comes to running the home in the bioparents absence.
Obviously it will work better when both the stepparent and the bioparent are on the same page, but it’s also ok for a stepparent to say ‘Hey kiddo, I know this stuff doesn’t bother mum/dad, but it bothers me. When I’m the parent in charge, please do things like this.’ I can hear the shock waves reverberating around step-family land as I type.
What??? Stepparents can have different rules to bioparents? How can that be? How can that work? Isn’t it too hard for kids to manage?
Here is an amazing thing about kids. The majority of them are capable of recognising that different environments have different expectations around behaviour and they are able to moderate their behaviour accordingly. They navigate different rules at grandparents houses, extended family, family friends, and between different teachers at school. They are well versed in the idea of situationally appropriate behaviour. If they can do it at school and grandma’s house they can do it at your home.
I manage chores with my stepchildren from a ‘what I need to not lose my sh*t’ angle. I highly recommend it. I’m not trying to create great adults necessarily, I’m making sure I don’t lose my mind because the kids are doing things that go against all of my values. It’s not about them per se, it’s all about me.
Things to be aware of
One of the biggest complaints I hear from stepparents is that bioparents are inconsistent when it comes to enforcing agreed rules or chores. Stepparents that are actively involved in managing chores and rules can end up feeling like a drill sergeant and worry about damaging their relationship with their stepkids. Newsflash, bioparents are often feeling those exact same concerns. This is particularly challenging when you have the ex in the background actively attempting to undermine and sabotage the relationships with the children in your home.
Sometimes bioparents are passive and inconsistent out of fear. These are valid fears at times. If you have the other home telling kids they can chose not to come to your house if they don’t like it, it can be a real possibility that being too hard on kids will lead to them not coming any more. As stepparents I think sometimes we don’t understand what a driver that fear can be. There are ways to manage chores and rules for kids who are being subjected to pathogenic parenting/alienation tactics, but that is a whole other article.
If your kids are not under duress from the other house to reject you, then setting consistent boundaries and enforcing expectations is actually an important way for kids to feel safe and a part of the family unit. Holding the same expectations for kids who are there most of the time and only some of the time is not always easy, or the best way to manage family relationships. It might feel unfair to those there fulltime, and to the stepparent who is being expected to hold different standards for the stepkids and biokids. Heck, it is unfair! Unfortunately, fairness is not an aspirational quality in stepfamilies; instead being real about capacity and what is feasible are where the focus needs to be.
Sometimes bioparents know their kids better than the stepparent. They can see when the kid is reaching peak capacity or meltdown point. They may decide to cut more slack than usual. Often stepparents can see this as rewarding crappy behaviour, rather than the bioparent being in tune with the needs of their child. It’s a hard line to straddle and giving kids some room when they are stressed is often a better option than enforcing chores and rules no matter what else is going on for the family and individuals.
At the end of the day, looking to where people are at, rather than an arbitrary set of rules and chore charts is going to be more effective in maintaining family harmony and ensuring kids buy in to the expectations around chores and rules. Build relationship first and be a stickler for chores second. Counterintuitively, giving space when kids are overwhelmed often results in more chores being done with less nagging.