Monday, May 15, 2017

Remarriage, step-parents, and the best interest of the child

The term "step-parent" appears to me to be ill-defined, loosely used, and often lacking consideration for the interest of the children. Words are impactful. Their proper use can provide clarity of meaning and understanding while their misuse can lead to confusion and myriad misgivings. The application of the term step-parent can bring forth all.

In the technical sense adoptive parents are the most appropriate example of step-parents. These people have taken upon the role of parents for a child in place of the child's birth parents for the presumed purpose of serving the child. In these instances each birth parent either didn't accept, lacked the opportunity, or relinquished the role of parent. This necessitated having a couple step into the role of parents for the child. For convenience adoptive parents are simply labeled as "parents". Alternatively, "step-parent" and "parent" are also used as labels for someone who may have adopted a parenting role of a child whose parent has not relinquished the parenting role.

In post divorce situations a birth parent of a child may remarry. When this happens it has become perfunctory by society to label the parent's subsequent spouse as a step-parent. I contend, however, that such labeling can be flawed and misrepresents the role of the newly included adult.

Intuitively the label of step-parent has evoked some discomfort in my mind. My relationship to one particular family clarified my thoughts. After some years of the children being without a father the mother remarried. Her subsequent spouse was a man whom she knew from her youthful days. Although a fine person and an appropriate companion for the mother there was a missing element. The children still came to me with concerns appropriately addressed by a father. Although mother had remarried the children still appeared to lack a residential father figure.

It occurred to me that this man was the mother's partner. He was not a step-parent. Therein lies the crux of the dissonance which I have observed in many children in similar situations. The children observe the social norm of a parental partner being labeled as their new parent. The children may be instructed to call this person "mom" or "dad". Yet, the children still feel as though an existing birth parent substantially fills the role of mother or father, or that absent an engaged parent the new partner to the residential parent has not stepped into the parenting role.

In these scenarios the remarrying parent has not identified the subsequent spouse as not fulfilling a parental role of has obfuscated that need of the children. The parent has instead chosen a spouse to meet his or her immediate wants while not acknowledging the deficit.

Early this year I wrote Are you subjected to the language of societal scripts when objective assessments would provide better outcomes? where I explored the rote application of terms which are reinforced by society although the terms may be logically contradictory. As now, it was my intention then to encourage you to express ideas through meaning rather than rote recitations of common labels.

When it comes to the introduction of a new adult into the household objective language should be used to identify the role of that person. If the children demonstrate that the person fills the void of a parent then the "step-parent" and associated "mom" or "dad" labels may be appropriate. If, however, the children still have two existing people fulfilling the role of parent or the subsequent spouse is not fulfilling the parenting role then "partner" or a similarly appropriate term should be used.

All parties involved will be better served by accurately characterizing their relationship status. This reduces dissonance and conflict while facilitating a smoother transition through the changing family dynamic.

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