Father's Day has never had the clout of Mother's Day. Dads are lucky to get a card or the proverbial ugly tie. But one group of fathers outdoes Rodney Dangerfield in terms of getting "no respect" - stepfathers. A prominent sociologist recently went so far as to say that a woman with children who remarries is committing child abuse!
This Father's Day, let's give stepdads something they can use a lot more than a tie - respect and support. Rather than stigmatizing them, let's explain what we know about what makes for success as a stepdad, and we actually know quite a bit.
Why is it acceptable to malign stepfathers? Many provide financial and emotional support to their stepchildren, often while maintaining relationships with their biological children who do not live with them.
There is a grain of truth to the widespread sense that children are more likely to be abused by stepfathers than by their biological fathers. Research does indicate that children are more at risk for abuse if they live in a household with an adult who is not their genetic parent. But most of these studies lump together all men who are unrelated to the children's mother and are living with her and her children. In addition to stepfathers, these studies often include boyfriends, uncles, grandfathers and friends of the mother. Even at that, the percentage of those men who abuse children is quite small. If the category of "stepfather" is limited to men who have legally married the mother of their stepchildren, there is little difference between biological fathers and stepfathers in propensity to abuse children.
One problem in determining to what extent stepchildren are at greater risk for being abused by a stepfather is that nobody really knows how many stepchildren exist, and how many live with a stepfather. Most estimates under-report stepchildren because of how demographers define households and because household membership is fluid in post-divorce families, with children moving in and out. It is impossible to accurately estimate the magnitude of risk for stepchildren when the number of stepchildren is unknown. Estimates vary widely, ranging from 9 percent to 17 percent of children. Most researchers have used the smaller estimates, which inflates stepparent abuse rates.
Lost in the image of "abusing stepfathers" is the fact that the United States has a proud past of notable stepfathers. George Washington, the "father of our country," was a stepfather to Martha's children. Dr. Seuss was a stepfather, as was the famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock. So too were authors C. S. Lewis and E. B. White, actors Ashton Kutcher and Brad Pitt, Sen. John Kerry and singer Johnny Cash.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford had stepfathers who adopted them. Meriwether Lewis, the great explorer, had a stepfather, as did Booker T. Washington, Charlton Heston, jazz artist George Benson, country singer Shania Twain, authors Anne Perry and Truman Capote, and presidential candidate Barack Obama.
The role of stepfathers is likely to grow as the diversity of American families continues to evolve. But despite their numbers, stepfathers have no legal rights regarding their stepchildren. Unless they adopt their stepchildren, which can be done only with the consent of the biological father, stepfathers are considered "legal strangers." They cannot legally sign the children into the emergency wards of hospitals, they often cannot visit a stepchild in the intensive-care unit of a hospital because they are not considered "immediate family" (although they do have the right to pay the hospital bills). They do not have access to school records, even if they are the ones helping with the homework every evening.
Successful stepfathers do not try to replace the stepchildren's father, even if he is a scoundrel. They develop good relationships with their stepchildren the same way they would develop a relationship with a potential friend - taking time to get acquainted and have fun together. They spend one-on-one time with the stepchild, especially early in the relationship. They resist any pressure to "act like a father" when it comes to being the disciplinarian. That's a job for the children's mother.
Successful stepfathers let the stepchildren choose the pace at which the friendship develops. Loving their stepchildren, they understand that it takes time for their stepchildren to reciprocate. The best stepfathers are masters at living with delayed gratification.
For their willingness to persevere, despite their lack of social respect and legal standing, let's raise a toast to the unheralded men who serve as a source of stability and strength to so many children in America today.
Marilyn Coleman is curator's professor of human development and family studies and Lawrence Ganong is professor of nursing and co-chairman of the department of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia.