Hacks are simple tricks for simplifying life. A hack can be as effortless as keeping a jar of safety pins next to your bed so that you can pin your socks together when you take them off. Viola, a single sock, never goes missing in the wash again.
One area where hacks are greatly needed is in step-families. The research suggests that blended family life is challenging. There are many reasons for this. Step-parents, step-grandparents, bonus aunts, uncles, and cousins all add an additional family dynamic. More “cooks in the kitchen” create additional room for conflict.
A second step-family challenge comes in trying to establish a routine. Families who share custody of their kids live in two different worlds. Life is lived by one schedule during the first half of the week and by a completely different schedule when the children return home. In a blended family house, life is always changing.
Because of this, blended family hacks are needed. The five simple tools described below may sound obvious. Yet, if you are not using them, then chances are, you and your family are working harder than needed. How do I know these hacks work? That’s easy. I watch my wife Jenny–an awesome step-mommy–put these tools into action every day. Because Jenny has but these systems into place, my daddy life is easier, and our kids benefit. In this post, I want to let other step-families in on the secrets.
A key to blended family success is to communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Step-moms have it tough. Traditional moms accumulate years of practice and relationship-building experience from the very beginning. Step-mommies dive right into an already established way of life. This, of course, makes communicating with dad, and the rest of the family extra important. Here are some simple communication hacks that I absolutely love.
Step-mommy Hack #1: Implement a Shared E-mail Account
Jenny created our joint e-mail shortly before we married. However, we didn’t begin using this account until last year. Today, all of our girl’s teachers and coaches send information to our joint account. I can’t begin to describe how much easier this has made my life.
Jenny is much better at planning than I am. It used to be that I would receive an important message, intend to discuss it with Jenny, but forget in all of the hustle and bustle of life. Now, Jenny and I both receive all e-mails about our children. Frustration due to lack of communication has been virtually eliminated.
Step-mommy Hack #2: Create a Snack and Meal Menu
We biological parents can feel guilty about only being with our children for half of the week. It’s far too easy to overdo things when the kiddos are home. A few months ago, Jenny and I began posting weekly meal plans–Ok, Jenny does most of the work, but my input is included.
Posting a menu of lunches, dinners, and snacks may sound overly structured. However, it’s incredible how much our girls enjoy this. The meal menu is one of the first things the girls check when they come home. This meal menu has several benefits:
- We eat healthier: Nutritious meals and special treats are balanced throughout the week.
- Our girls have something to look forward to: We always plan at least one treat late in the week. This keeps everyone excited.
- We have cut down on impromptu trips to the grocery store: I no longer mistakenly use ingredients intended for another meal. Everything is planned out.
- Our kids love knowing what to expect: It adds consistency and structure to their lives.
Step-mommy Hack #3: A Simple Clothing Hack
Jenny is awesome at helping the girls dress cutely and appropriately. On the other hand, I have good intentions but have still not figured out what a color-scheme is. In fact, before Jenny and I were married, it’s quite possible that I sent Brooklyn (our middle child) to church in a set of pajamas. In my defense, the outfit looked very much like a dress, and it was not displayed in the pajama isle in the store.
To make our lives easier, Jenny chooses outfits for the girls each night before bed. This simple hack makes all of our lives are easier.
Blended family discipline is a common hot-button. Here are two simple hacks for making discipline easier.
Step-mommy Hack #4: Form a Discipline Agreement
Who should do the discipline in a blended family? This is an often asked question. I could recite what the experts say. The only problem is that the experts don’t live in your home. Each blended family has a unique dynamic. In my opinion, the most important thing is that the parents of the house–i.e., dad and step-mom–team-up in this area.
Before challenges arise, team-up by creating a discipline agreement.
- Decide what forms of discipline will be used: i.e., time-outs, loss of privileges, a do-over, etc.
- Decide what offenses require parental intervention: A clear set of family rules is beneficial to everyone.
Then, communicate this structure to the kids during a family meeting, and support each other in the discipline process.
Step-mommy Hack #5: Implement Discipline Debriefs
Jenny and I are lucky. We have good girls, and discipline, outside of a gentle reminder, is rarely needed. If a time-out or consequence is given, Jenny and I debrief after the girls have gone to sleep. This extra communication reduces confusion and provides the opportunity to refine our system.
These simple, step-mommy hacks make life easier for our blended family. What would you add to this list? Are their tools that your step-family uses to make life work? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments below. Our family is always on the lookout for new tools that work.
P.S. I’m incredibly excited that Jenny has started blogging again. You can find an additional step-mommy hack in her latest post: Don’t Pick up the Rope. This strategy works wonders for reducing conflict both in and out of the home.
5 thoughts on “Awesome, Step-Mommy Hacks for Less Blended Family Stress”
Great time and relationship savers. Having sweet kids and knowledgeable parents goes a long way too! It’s all connected. You hit on so many key points including clear communication and consistency. One of the most important things I learned as a step-mom was to remind myself that kids are learning and making mistakes, that no one’s perfect, and compassion and laughter build strong bonds. Families are messy collaborative adventures and a sense of humor goes a long way.
It’s great to get feedback from others in a blended family 🙂 I didn’t know that you’re a step-mom. I love your way of looking at families as messy collaborative adventures. What an great way to put it! And I wholeheartedly agree, humor and laughter are a must.
While I did not grow up in a blended family, I have many represented even in my immediate family. Add to this the families of kids I’ve mentored over the years (which includes their parents every bit as much), and I’ve been invited to have some input in an awful lot of blended families. I’ve also been a legal guardian twice, in each case serving as the sole “parent” for more than a year-and-a-half; this is also a type of blended family that presents specific challenges (particularly since both kids were older teens and could have chosen to simply run away from the situation if they didn’t like it).
You hit on something here that is very important, Jed, and which makes discipline issues a lot easier in all families, but especially in blended families. That is, set behavior expectations clearly and, I would add, in writing. Grab a small notebook and use that as “the book.” It’s important to choose your battles and not to fill the book (or your attentions) with every little thing. Start with just THREE things, carefully chosen, and include all family members in on the decision. (Parents/step-parents should discuss these ahead of time, before bringing it to the kids.)
At a time when there is no current conflict (never as a reactionary measure), have a family meeting to make entries into the book. Let’s say that the two adults have come up with three things they think are the central behaviors that seem to be repeat issues in the home. Create a list of FIVE things, which includes these three, making the other two more minor offenses that the kids will recognize in themselves. Together, help them choose THREE to put in the book. This takes a little skill, in asking good questions to help the kids decide between the “big issues” and the “small issues.” In the end, THREE go in the book.
Now, together, using questions, help the kids come up with appropriate and related consequences that they feel will be fair and that will help them to remember the appropriate choice the next time. Once everyone is in agreement, write down those consequences.
So let’s say one behavior that makes the book is “disrespectful language to anyone in our family.” You might even want to write key examples of the kinds of words that might get used (e.g., idiot, loser, hate). And let’s say, after asking your kids who are 7 and 9 what they think a good consequence might be, they start with, “Um … stay in your room for the rest of the night.” Now, you as an adult realize that this is too harsh. So you use steering questions like, “Wow, all night? What if you say something as soon as you get home from school? Do you think that might be too long a time? You’d have to eat supper in there and not see any of us until bed time. And what if we aren’t home and something mean or disrespectful is said?” Let’s say they go from there to, “Oh, no that’s too long. What about a time-out for five minutes?” You might think this is too SHORT, but it’s important to include the child’s input here; so maybe say, “Hmmm, that might be enough time. We’ll write it down. Then we’ll see if it works to help you remember the next time. If not, we’ll talk about putting down something else later.
It’s also important that the consequence be related to the offense. So discuss this. “I think that being alone for a little while will help you cool down and think about your words, and it will give everyone a break to feel better about the words and then talk about them calmly and choose better words. What do you think?”
So this entry in the book looks like this:
DISRESPECTFUL language to anyone in our family = five minutes alone, away from family activity
Maybe even have the kids come up with a picture that represents the offense and the consequence (especially if some of the children are not yet readers).
Once the book has three behaviors and consequences, review them and remind everyone “OK, so we are agreed. When any of these things happens, we’ll just look in the book and see what we all came up with.”
Put the book in a place out of sight (so that it’s not a threat) and yet where all kids can reach it. Then, whenever a behavior in the book arises, there is now no need for conflict. Emotions don’t need to escalate. Consequences aren’t random or based on parent moods. You simply say, “OK, let’s grab ‘the book’ and see what we said for when anyone is disrespectful.” Have the child read it back or paraphrase. Then follow through.
Of course, you can redirect behaviors not in the book. And consequences will change with age and with repeat offenses (e.g., with a teen, “This previous consequence we came up with doesn’t seem to be helping you make better choices, so what do you think a more convincing consequence might be that will help you?”) You can even add to the book within reason. But I always suggest NO punishment for things that are new behaviors and are not yet in the book. You’d still grab the book, flip through it, and say, “Hmmm, that one’s not in the book, so I’m going to let this go. But let’s talk later in the week about whether this needs to be added to the book or not.”
Getting all-party agreement and making it a consistent go-to really does take a lot of stress out of discipline. No one is the bad guy. No one is unfair. Arguments are cut down. And … it builds the metacognitive voice in kids’ minds that cues them before engaging in negative behavior that allows them to predict and to decide knowledgeably whether the “enjoyment” of the offense is outweighed by a known consequence.
Wow … that was much longer than I anticipated writing!
There is so much excellent, parenting wisdom, here. And I learned some new stuff about you too. I had no idea that you were a legal guardian for two kids. No wonder you have so much great advice! I can see you being an incredible parent and role model.
I love what you have to say about discipline. In blended families, where the years of relationship, bonding, and structure have not been formed, starting slow is key. I can see how honing in on three areas of growth would be incredibly effective.
Change is hard. If a child is transitioning from a home where disrespectful language is the norm, breaking this habit, and “normal way of life,” won’t be easy. Starting slow, focusing on a few areas of change, and agreeing upon what the consequences will be in advance, are tools that I’ve seen work very well. In fact, a lot of times teenagers end up setting stricter consequences for themselves then I would have set. It’s amazing how some kids will hold themselves accountable to the consequences, when they have a part in the process.
This discipline book, is such an awesome blended family hack!
Re: the two kids I parented, yes, Brandon and John are both highlighted in the book (which you’ll come to find out along the way!).