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Back To School In Stepfamilies: Burying The Hatchet
By Lisa Cohn
This story appears in the Sept/Oct issue of Your Stepfamily Online (www.yourstepfamily.com).
In conventional families, preparing children for a new school year may involve getting kids to bed early, buying supplies and arranging transportation to school.
Adults in stepfamilies must tackle these important jobs, plus a sometimes thorny task: coordinating with parents in the child's "other" house to ensure the child reaps the most from the school year, says Susan Wisdom, co-author of the book "Stepcoupling" and a licensed professional counselor in Portland, Ore.
Sometimes, rather than working together, parents in stepfamilies compete with each other over who has more "power" at school and more influence over the child, Wisdom says. They try to leave their ex-spouses out of the school loop. In addition, divorced parents sometimes fail to communicate with each other about a child's homework assignments and after-school activities. Or they may find it difficult to manage the logistics of sending a child from one house to the other with his school supplies, musical instruments and sports gear.
A new school year is a great time for Mom, Dad, Stepmom and Stepdad to strike civil partnerships with each other-for the kids' sake, she says.
"It's wonderful if all four parents can get together in late August or early September to strategize," she says. They should focus on ensuring both houses have adequate school supplies and they should set aside time for homework, says Wisdom. At these meetings, parents should discuss the possibility of attending parent-teacher conferences and after-school activities together.
If parents in blended families can form such partnerships, they're giving an important gift to their children, says Jean McBride, a marriage and family therapist who is president of the Center for Divorce & Remarriage in Fort Collins, Colo.
"The research is clear," says McBride. "Parental conflict is a killer for kids. But when parents and stepparents are able to spend time together, talk together, and work together, they create a safety net under their children."
While it's not always easy to strike partnerships with ex-spouses, parents across the country do it everyday to benefit their children.
"Some people do very well from the very beginning," says Anne Bernstein, a family psychologist in Berkeley, Calif.
Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America, based in Lincoln, Neb., says that divorced parents don't need to be great friends in order to work together. They simply need to keep the child's interests in mind. That's what she and her ex-husband and their second families did when her children were young.
"At school events, we generally all sat together. That doesn't mean we were all lovey dovey. We were there for a common purpose-for the sake of the children," she says.
Danielle Fenton of New York City has the same philosophy. She works hard to ensure her son's father is included in parent-teacher conferences, receives communications from teachers and knows about homework assignments.
"The families should try to behave like a unit, even if they aren't getting along," she says. "It's a nice gesture on the part of the custodial parent to welcome the other parent, who often feels shut out," she says.
To ensure all parents are included in school communications and activities, the Stepfamily Association of America (SAA) recommends that stepfamily members fill out and submit to schools an SAA form listing the contact information for all of a child's stepparents and parents, says Engel."If the school says it doesn't have the manpower to send out multiple copies of report cards and other communications, send the school a dozen stamped, self-addressed envelopes," she suggests.
If all parents and stepparents receive communications from schools, all the adults in a child's family are more likely to be operating on the "same wavelength," she says.
When parents operate on the same wavelength, they also work together to ensure a child completes homework assignments, says Wisdom. Some children only do their homework at Mom's house, she says. "Sometimes, Dad's house is just the fun house. But that can be difficult and confusing for kids. It would be better if parents could work together on homework," she says.
Parents in stepfamilies also help their children thrive if they communicate regularly about school and after-school supplies, notes Engel.
Parents in both houses should create a list of the school books, science projects, sports equipment, musical instruments and prescription medication that need to be in a child's backpack as he travels to and from his two homes and school.
"Someone in each household should check off the items on the list as the child moves back and forth between houses," she says.
When parents begin to cooperate in this manner, they're likely to see improvements in their child's school performance, says Wisdom.
"Nothing will disturb a child's school performance more than hostility between parents and confusion about what's expected of them in school," she says. "Parents need to bury the hatchet, put competition and resentment aside, and help their kids have successful school years."
Lisa Cohn, an award-winning writer, is co-author of "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories And Advice For Stepfamilies," which will be published in October by RiverWood Books. For more information, visit www.yourstepfamily.com.
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