There is one aspect of stepfamily life that can generate a lot of heat: money. Everyone knows that finances are a common stressor among stepfamilies. Many fathers have children with previous partners and must pay child support or alimony. Contrary, some remarried mothers receive child support from their ex-partners. One thing is for certain; each household has a unique financial situation.
For instance, in scenarios like birthdays and holidays; is financial equality possible in order to achieve fairness all round for the children? In an ideal blended family, the children would receive presents from their biological parents and stepparents alike. Double for everyone! Yay! However, what if this does not happen like it should? What if remarried dad is the sole provider for two households? What if remarried mom does not receive child support or her children have been abandoned? What if the remarried dad’s children never see their biological mother? The hypothetical situations are endless.
Aeby, Widmer, and Carlo (2014) call this particular concept bridging social capital. How each household establishes family boundaries affects how social capital is distributed. Stepfamilies can expect less social capital than first families because their assets are divided (Aeby, Widmer & Carlo, 2014). Furthermore, some children may receive more than others based on family involvement and size. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lot of resentment in the family unit.
Each remarried partner questions themselves about fairness. Naturally, parents wonder if their biological children are receiving the same amount as their stepchildren. Westernized society has created the assumption that all children in the family unit must be treated equally. However, research has shown that it is more important that children understand why they are treated differently (Kowal, Kramer, Krull & Crick, 2002). For that reason, a child’s perception of preferred treatment may augment their social-emotional well-being.
So, if the stepfamily norm is ‘unfairness’, how do you mitigate the feelings of resentment in your family?
One suggestion is by learning how to communicate effectively with each member of the family. Age-appropriate conversations with the children about money can go a long way in alleviating resentment that may form. The same concept applies to the remarried couple; by simply having an open dialogue about fairness among the children is important. Finding out what fairness means to the children is a good starting point. Subsequently, by engaging in fairness-based scenarios with the children and then discussing them, will help to encourage and broaden their sense of fairness as they continue to develop over the years.
There will be many times when you and your spouse will be faced with financial challenges therefore, it is wise to agree and set reasonable expectations with each other and with your children.
Expectations differ from family to family, yet there are two preferences that families tend to use:
One family could practice the exclusionary preference, which implies that the remarried couple are only concerned with how they treat the children when they are present in their home. If the couple prefers this direction, they are excluding the fact that the children may receive more gifts or activities from other parents that live outside the home. For example, those who practice exclusionary preference are likely to just buy presents equally, “Johnny” gets two video games and “Jane” gets two video games from the remarried couple.
Those who utilize inclusionary preference take into account the fact that children may be treated differently at their other household. For example, “Johnny” gets two video games from his biological father and one game from the remarried couple for his birthday. “Jane’s” biological mother abandoned her, therefore, inclusionary preference would suggest that the remarried couple take into consideration that “Johnny” received three video games, and they would strive to purchase “Jane” three video games for her birthday to promote equality.
Each practice requires that the family set boundaries that work for them, and they communicate the choice to all family members.
Conclusively, it is important that blended families establish their guidelines of gift-giving and family activities from the onset. You and your spouse should effectively communicate your expectations to one another, then age-appropriate conversations should take place with the children once a mutual agreement has been made. So, is fairness necessary? It may not always be possible to achieve complete fairness across all family situations but the goal here is to try and address the issue of perceived fairness in a way that prevents the children from displaying animosity towards one another.
Aeby, G., Widmer, E. D., & Carlo, I. D. (2014). Bonding and bridging social capital in step- and first-time families and the issue of family boundaries. Interpersona, 8(1), 51-69.
Kowal, A., Kramer, L., Krull, J. L., & Crick, N. R. (2002). Children’s perceptions of the fairness of parental preferential treatment and their socioemotional well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(3), 297-306. doi:10.1037/0893-318.104.22.1687
Lenee Kehnt is a M.A./Ph.D Trainee, soon-to-be Clinical Psychologist from sunny Southern California. She is currently employed as a Counselor who administers individual and couple’s therapy. Lenee is a biological mother and stepmother to 14-year old and 15-year old boys.