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The Stepparent Role

Research has suggested that the stepparent role, according to the beliefs, reported behaviors, and observed behaviors of stepparents, is a less active one than is the role of the biological parent. Mark Fine and Lawrence Kurdek (1994) found that step-parents believe they are less active—and should be less active—as parents than are biological parents. These differences were present in both the warmth and control aspects of the parenting role, although they were strongest in the warmth dimension. However, there also appear to be differences among members of stepfamilies in how actively they believe the stepparent should parent. According to a study by Mark Fine, Marilyn Coleman, and Lawrence Ganong (1998), stepchildren reported that stepparents should be less active as parents than was reported by stepparents and parents in their stepfamilies. In addition, stepchildren were more likely than parents and stepparents to report that the stepparent should play the role of "friend" rather than "parent" or "stepparent." Based on these results and others, Fine, Coleman, and Ganong concluded that "stepparents generally believe that they should play a more active role in parenting than do their stepchildren and, on some dimensions, than their spouses" (1999, p. 290). Because most parents and stepparents report believing that stepparents should function as parents, these authors suggested that the adults in stepfamilies often attempt to recreate their families in the image of a first-marriage, intact family.

When stepparents are asked how they actually behave, not just what their beliefs are, they also report being less active as parents than do biological parents. In a sample of stepfamilies included in the National Survey of Families and Households (Fine, Voydanoff, and Donnelly 1993), stepfathers reported behaving less positively and less negatively toward their stepchildren than did fathers, indicating that they refrain from becoming involved with their stepchildren. However, stepmothers reported responding as positively to their stepchildren as did biological mothers in stepfamilies, although they responded less negatively. This suggests that stepfathers may be less active in demonstrating warmth to children than are fathers, but that stepmothers show as much warmth to children as biological mothers. Moreover, these findings suggest that stepmothers may be more active in parenting than stepfathers, which may partially explain the commonly noted observation that stepmothers have greater adjustment difficulties than stepfathers (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000; McBride 2001).

Finally, in some studies, observers have rated the actual parenting behaviors of stepparents and biological parents. Most of these studies have assessed stepfathers and not stepmothers. As is consistent with the previously discussed studies, these investigations indicate that stepfathers are less active as parents than are biological fathers. In these studies, stepfathers, compared with biological fathers, were less involved with, showed less awareness of, and exerted less discipline over their stepchildren (Hetherington and Clingempeel 1992). When stepfathers in newly formed stepfamilies tried to establish a positive relationship with the stepchild by talking and sharing activities, these efforts were often met with resistance, particularly when the stepchild was an adolescent. Despite this resistance, many stepfathers continued to try to remain involved in the lives of their stepchildren. Over time, however, because of continued resistance or distancing behaviors on the part of the stepchild, most of these stepfathers stopped trying to establish close stepfather-stepchild relationships. There is some evidence, however, that it pays off for stepfathers to be persistent. According to Ganong and his colleagues (1999), those stepfathers who made consistent and repeated attempts to elicit liking from their stepchildren were rewarded with more enriching and satisfying stepparent-stepchild relationships.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesStepfamilies - Parenting Roles, The Stepparent Role, Clarity Of The Stepparent Role, Adjustment In Stepfamilies, Stepparent Role And Adjustment