LIVING IN A STEPFAMILY: THE CHILD'S VIEW
By Paul R. Amato *
What is it like to grow up in a stepfamily? This was one of the questions that guided a recent study of children in Australia. As in the United States, the divorce rate in Australia climbed dramatically during the last few decades. Presently in Australia, about one third of recent marriages are expected to end in divorce. (The comparable figure for the United States is about one-half.) Remarriage after divorce is common in Australia, as it is in the United States, and about one child in 10 in Australia lives in a stepfamily.
In the "Children in Families Study," we wanted to find out how children experience life in different types of families. To get the child's-eye view, we interviewed 402 children in stepfamilies, single-parent families, and traditional two-parent families. Half of these children were in PRIMARY school (age 8-9) and half were in high school (age 15-16). These interviews lasted for one hour, on average, and covered many aspects of family life, including relations with parents, rules, punishment, household chores, and family activities. My comments below are limited to stepfather families, since most of our stepfamilies fell into this category.
What did children tell us about living in stepfamilies? To begin with, children in stepfamilies are not very different from other children in many respects. For example, there are no differences between children in stepfather families and traditional two-parent families in how close they feel to their mothers, how much help they receive from their mothers, the number of rules mothers make for them, and how frequently their mothers punish them. In short, the mother-child relationship does not appear to be strongly affected by stepfamily life, at least as far as children are concerned.
Relations between children and stepfathers are, as you might expect, sometimes problematic. Although most children describe their stepfathers favorably, a few are emphatically critical of them. For example, a girl age 9 said, "He smokes and he drinks alcohol - A lot of it. He's not very polite. He swears a lot. Just about every sentence has got a rude word in it." And a 9-year-old boy said, "He's a pretty mean man. Can't think of anything else." Nevertheless, most children report that they get along well with their stepfathers, in spite of occasional disagreements. For example, one 9-year-old boy said, ‘He acts better than my ex-father. He's more intelligent and he doesn't call people names." Another 16-year-old boy said, "He's very caring, takes a close interest in everything I do and helps to see me through at school. He makes sure I get good grades."
We found that the longer a stepfamily has been together, the more positively children describe relationships with stepfathers. In fact, in stepfamilies that have been together for six years or more, the stepfather-stepchild relationship is as close as the father-child relationship in traditional families. This tells us that it takes time to build up trusting and supportive relationships in stepfamilies. Stepfathers are less involved in decision-making and punishment than are biological fathers in traditional families; they prefer to leave the role of "ruIe maker" and "disciplinarian" to the children's mother. However, the longer children live in a stepfamily, the more likely they are to report that stepfathers take on these roles. Over time, from a child's perspective, stepfathers become more like fathers in traditional families.
The quality of the child's relationship with his or her stepfather has many implications. We found that children who have positive relationships with stepfathers have high self-esteem; on the other hand, children with poor relationships with stepfathers have low self-esteem. This underscores the fact that stepfathers become central figures in children's lives - for better or for worse.
Children in stepfamilies have more household responsibilities than do children in traditional two parent families. This appears to be a legacy of their time in a single-parent family when it was necessary for them to help their mothers with household tasks and management. As a result, children in stepfamilies have a relatively high level of everyday life skills, that is, they know how to prepare food, clean, and look after themselves better than do many other children.
Finally, children describe stepfamily life as being somewhat less cohesive than do children in traditional two-parent families. Children in stepfamilies are independent, and there is a tendency for family members to "go their own ways" much of the time. However, the longer the time since a stepfamily was formed, the more likely members are to do things together as a family.
In summary, our study found that most children in stepfamilies in Australia are developing well, although a small proportion are having problems adjusting to stepfamily life. Loyalty conflicts, divergent expectations, and jealousies can interfere with the development of supporting relationships in stepfamilies. Our study shows that it takes time for everyone to settle in, and for some, the amount of time involved may be frustratingly slow.
* Paul R. Amato is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Between 1983 and 1987, he was a Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies in Melbourne. This article was published in the quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Winter 1990.