Ron L. Deal
There is a not-so-hidden secret to stronger stepfamily relationships. Play. “Okay, Ron,” I can hear you saying. “That is no big surprise.” Well maybe this is: despite the obvious bonding that takes place when families have fun together, most stepfamilies don’t strive for play on a regular basis.
David and Karen not only know this secret, they practice it. Nearly 29 years ago both David and Karen brought two children to their union. “Our relationship with one another’s children was conceived in fun,” they shared while reflecting on their journey together. “We each found something we could do with each child and when we discovered activities that everyone enjoyed, we made a conscious decision to schedule them on a regular basis.”
Stepfamily members deepen relationships over time. Time spent learning about one another, connecting, and experiencing life builds relationship bonds. David and Karen’s simple strategy intentionally took advantage of the natural connecting points between family members. David would play baseball with his stepson and cards with his stepdaughter. Karen exercised with her oldest stepdaughter and coached her youngest in softball. Rituals that connected the entire family included attending church each Sunday and going out to eat after. They also found connection in cheering for their favorite football team each weekend.
Here are some additional ideas to get you connecting.
Notice Your Existing Connecting Points. Many stepparents, for example, already have natural connecting points that they didn’t realize were important. Now that you know the importance of these activities, identify what already exists and become more intentional about repeating them.
Take Interest in Their Interests. Don’t expect children to join you in your interests. Notice what they enjoy and try to join them. One child in my home gravitates toward Lego’s; if I want to get into his world all I have to do is suggest we build something together.
Share Your Talents and Skills. If you can play the guitar and someone else would like to learn, use the opportunity to teach them as a tool for connection. One stepmother’s interest in the theatre became an opportunity to share the stage with her stepchildren who appreciated her talent.
Hang with the Pack. Early in stepfamily life it can be wise for stepparents to play it safe and engage primarily children primarily through group activities. One-on-one time, by contrast, can be uncomfortable for some children. Defenses rise and resistance grows when this happens, discouraging everyone. Try engaging children in special activities when two or more family members are available. As relationships grow over time, one-on-one play will be helpful.
Breaking Down Walls. Stepparents with highly resistant stepchildren should adopt a “we’ll play when you’re ready” posture. Forcing fun on an angry or resistant child is likely to erupt in conflict. Instead, focus on maintaining a calm emotional distance with the child. Ask about their life, but don’t try to engage in their life. Be aware of their school and life circumstances (e.g., “How did that math test go?” or “I saw a blouse today I thought you might look good wearing.”), support their interests (e.g., cheer for their sports activities or take them to music practice), and take advantage of simple activities that bring a smile (e.g., watching fun movies together). Don’t underestimate the little opportunities God gives you.
Find Time for Fun in Marriage. Part of enhancing family stability is strengthening your marriage. A national survey of couples creating stepfamilies by myself and researcher Dr. David Olson found that the number four predictor of healthy stepcouple marriages is shared leisure. A regular dose of fun is just what the doctor ordered for couples who find themselves dealing with the typical strains faced by stepfamilies. That’s how you fell in love, isn’t it? Don’t stop just because you’re married.
It might seem obvious that stepfamilies would want to engage in intentional play. We would assume that stepparents, for example, who often feel like an outsider in their own home, would engage in the affinity-seeking behaviors mentioned above. However, research confirms that most stepparents don’t actively seek connection with stepchildren, especially if they have been snubbed a couple times. Be determined to intentionally engage in playful activities. Over time these regular bonding opportunities will bear much fruit—and many smiles.
It's Your Turn: Share your experiences in the Comment section below. How has "play" played a role in your family's development?
Ron L. Deal is Founder and President of Smart Stepfamilies, author of the bestselling book The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and coauthor with Laura Petherbridge of The Smart Stepmom and with David H. Olson of the forthcoming book The Remarriage Checkup.
 Mark Fine, “The Role of the Stepparent: How Similar are the Views of Stepparents, Parents, & Stepchildren?” Stepfamilies, Fall, 1997.