Step-by-step-parenting. Stepparents have bum rap, handed down by Cinderella's stepmother

`I FEEL just like Cinderella,'' a 12-year-old girl told her stepmother as the girl washed dishes. Kay, the girl's stepparent for more than two years, recalls how she felt.

``When she said that to me, I didn't know what to say. I asked her, `What do you mean you feel like Cinderella? Who am I supposed to be - the wicked old stepmother?'''

Kay, 27, openly admits she didn't know what to say. She isn't alone.

The Cinderella saga has tended to give stepparents a bad rap for many years. With over 500 variations, it may have done more harm to families than any other piece of literature.

Steven Roberts, president of Family Services in Midland, Texas, explains why in his view the tale is so largely responsible for the stigma.

``It is one of the first things children get when they are very young,'' Mr. Roberts says.

``Since we cut our teeth on those books as children, so to speak, we carry those ideas away with us.''

When we hear the word stepparent, he feels, sympathy sometimes goes out to the child. After all, any well-read fairy-tale fan can vouch that there are few good stepparents in the pages of most fairy-tale literature.

An estimated 3 out of 4 divorces occur in marriages with children. Tying the knot involves more than just a man and woman starting out marriage from scratch. Ready-made families are more common than ever.

While counselors are simply trying to understand and evaluate how adults cope with divorce and remarriage, a whole new area has opened up: How do children handle it all?

There is growing recognition of the need for more solutions to problems confronting the blended family.

On the surface, stepfamilies face the same concerns that natural families do, but in stepfamilies sometimes ordinary problems may incur resentment. While understanding the opposing viewpoint doesn't necessarily solve the problem, it does help.

For a child, divorce of the two most important people in his world may be the pain of loss and grief. And remarriage may be a time of confusion. The child may never speak aloud these feelings, but hide them deep inside.

James Olson, a psychologist at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, says new parents often have self-defeating expectations.

How?

By expecting too much, or not understanding the stepparenting role.

They ``think they can fulfill some mother or father role for the primary purpose of trying to make their mate happy, which is clearly an erroneous position to take,'' Mr. Olson says.

Manuals on effective parenting abound, but not until the last decade has stepparenting come into full focus.

When the woman enters the marriage, she has one, two, or more relationships to work out - relationships with her husband, with each of his children, and, of course, with the in-laws.

The age of the child is an important factor in how openly the new parent is accepted. For instance, a three-year-old will be more loving and cuddly than a teen-ager already in the process of seeking his or her independence.

Understanding what this role should be, instead of trying to live up to preconceived notions, alleviates much of the guilt and disappointment.

Experts agree that the new parent should not feel he or she has to replace the natural parent. He should not even try.

``A lot of people go into this second or third [marriage] as a stepparent thinking that they have to fulfill the biological parent's role, and they don't. That's not their job,'' Olson says.

``Their job is a wife or a husband. Their job is to be a supporter and to do for the children, but not to expect anything like a mother or father bond - at least not initially,'' he adds.

``The [stepparents] think they are going to have some biological thing, and it's not going to happen,'' Olson explains.

While the new parent wants to be accepted, like any parent he or she must also play the role of a disciplinarian.

In doing so, it's good to concentrate on what's liked about the child. Olson encourages stepparents to reward children for their good actions. And the best reward, of course, is loving attention. It may take as little as three seconds, three words - ``Hey, that's great'' - and a smile.

But there come times when the stepparent must discipline. When this happens, they needn't feel guilty or apologize. But they also shouldn't be surprised if they get something like: ``You're not my mother or father. I don't love you, and I don't have to mind you.''

These words might crumple the staunchest stepparent. The first reaction might be to lash back and defend oneself, but Olson advises differently.

``Don't react,'' he says. ``If you react, you are feeding the fire. Words will bring men to their knees faster than clubs.'' Read a letter, pay a bill, clean out cabinets, but get out of close proximity.

Roberts advises stepparents to further defuse the situation by examining what has been said. For instance, ``You are not my mother, and you can't tell me what to do'' are words it is probably safe to say every stepparent has heard at least once.

Stepparents can acknowledge what has been said. Doing so takes away the affront that saying has for the child. Unless those words are disarmed, they may be brought up again.

A suggested response might be, ``That's right. I'm not your mother (or father). Your biological mother (or father) is not here, but I am your parent, and parents have certain rights and obligations.''

But wise answers in angry moments don't always come so neatly packaged. Patience and a thick skin may help.

Understanding a child's view of good and bad can also enable the adult to be more understanding. Children tend to parcel things out into good and bad - with no gray areas. It is difficult for a child to admit, ``Yeah, Mom or Dad is OK, and I love them, but sometimes they can be really bad, too.''

Often children only remember the good about the parent not there, and blame the bad on the stepparent that is there instead.

From a child's view, that is the new person who sleeps in the same bed with mommy or daddy, eats at the same table, and does all the things the remaining biological parent would share with the missing biological parent if still there.

A stepparent needs to recognize that it may be difficult for the child to accept him or her. It's important to consider these feelings.

Although problems should be openly discussed, certain times can be declared off limits. One is when anger or feelings are too intense at the moment. It may be best to back off and wait until the situation is calmer.

Another is mealtime, which represents love and affection. So mealtimes need to be declared a time of truce.

``Talk trivial,'' Olson advises. ``Be more descriptive and ask fewer questions.'' Even innocent questions on a touchy subject can put up the barriers.

When a problem does crop up, call a family conference, and let everyone know this is problem-solving time.

Time together is important for any family, but especially so for a family that does not have complete biological bonds.

Family time for the blended family is essential to strengthen the link of love.

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