How to Treat All Kids Equally as a Step-Parent

Toby Hazlewood

Striving for equality in reward, punishment, love and affection

Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

At some point, most parents have been accused by their kids of favoring one child over another.

It’s usually made to trigger guilt in the parent and preumably intended to cause some hurt, most often when the child’s ego has been bruised. It’ll often happen when the child doesn’t appreciate a punishment that’s been handed down for bad behavior, or when they feel you’ve favoured their sibling over them.

I’ve always gone out of my way to treat my kids as fairly and equally as I could. Accusations that I favour one over the other are unfounded in spite of what either might think. In fact, I've gone out my way to reply (jokingly) that "I dislike all my kids equally"! These days my efforts are rewarded with a roll of the eyes rather than the situation being diffused in any way.

What I wasn’t prepared for in my life as a parent, was how much more challenging it would be to maintain this standard when I inherited two step-kids; a blessing that came along with my second wife. The opportunities for falling foul of such standards of equality suddenly doubled. The pressure built to ensure not only that I treated my two equally, but also that I treated hers equally to mine too; the same applied for her.

The principle of equality in blended families applies in many more contexts than I’d ever envisaged it might, and these continue to surprise and occasionally torment me as the years go by. This story describes the three most important steps for moving towards a blended family, and the second of these emphasizes equality - it's the fundamental basis of making a complex family structure work for all involved.

Reward and discipline

First and most obviously, comes the need for equality in rewarding and punishing the kids in line with the same standards and expectations of behavior, discipline and performance at school. This has demanded that in our family that we united upon common standards to begin with.

My wife and I shared a common ethos regarding our kids and what we aspired for them to achieve. Nonetheless we’ve had to bridge the gap between our expectations and to reach a common understanding of what we expect of the kids at home and at school.

I've also had to ensure that the standards that I maintain for my kids (who I raise co-operatively with my ex-wife) are also maintained and enforced. She’s my kids’ mother, and co-parents them equally with me on alternate weeks. I’ve had to ensure that in my kids’ eyes, expectations placed upon them haven’t changed as a result of my getting married again and with two step-siblings coming into the family.

Equal standards, equal expectations

Our strategy has been to ensure that reward and praise, as well as inevitable punishment and denial of privileges are given consistently and in line with the highest standards. Where one of us may have previously rewarded our child with a treat for passing a test, we are trying now to encourage them all to excel and exceed targets, rather than merely to pass.

Where one of us might previously have denied privileges for earning detention at school, the other might have considered the detention punishment enough. Our united approach ensures that they all receive the same punishment for the same infringement. Inevitably for the kids I think it's raised standards and made punishments more severe - I'm not sure they love that!

Devising, navigating and enforcing this regime have taken time and effort, but gradually we’ve found equilibrium. Grades seem also to have improved universally amongst our kids so I guess that’s a good thing!


With the enlarged and blended family comes the need to ensure that opportunities are provided equally to each of the kids. It was financially stretching enough when there were two kids who wanted to take part in school trips overseas, study musical instruments and take part in sports clubs; now all four rightly expect the same opportunities.

In later life, there’ll be university education to fund if the youngest three follow in the footsteps of the eldest. There’ll no doubt be four weddings to pay for at some point too.

Providing opportunities doesn’t just equate to cost, and as big a challenge has been in ensuring that each child gets a fair chance to spend time individually and collectively with their birth-parent as well as within the family unit, together.

Both my wife and I came into our marriage after a number of years as single parents. Our kids were naturally used to occupying much of our time without having to compete for our attention. We’ve gone to great lengths to preserve this, recognising that none of the six of us in the blended unit want to feel like we’re competing for time with anyone else.

Quality time

My wife will have periods of time alone with her kids, just as I do with mine. We carefully orchestrate time spent in these sub-units as well as time when we’re all together. There are also occasions when all the kids are with their respective other parents, giving my wife and I some gratefully-appreciated quality time together.

That kid-free time is certainly welcome, as well as quite a rare luxury for a couple with four kids between them. A significant lesson for me has been that if compromises need to be made anywhere, it’s in me losing out on time with my wife to allow her kids to spend time with her, or mine with me.

It's tough to acknowledge, but a fact of life unfortunately - the adult is the one who has to make sacrifices.

Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash

Expectations of hard work

Even though it won’t win us any popularity contests amongst our kids, we’re trying to enforce for each of them that the real world is tough. Our expectations of them are driven out of a desire for them to achieve what they want and deserve, but to manage their expectations that it won’t come easily.

Such messages aren’t always easy to convey without coming across as crushers of dreams. I want my kids to understand that a care-free life of riches doesn’t automatically follow within 5-years of leaving school.

A career as a top-flight professional sports-person is unlikely unless you’re discovered with unthinkable talent at a very early age, and none of them have been. Setting out to be a YouTuber is not a likely or viable career-path. Becoming an Instagram-influencer won’t happen through habitually scrolling endlessly through your feed or taking selfies.

Such messages are no doubt hard to digest for our kids. We need them to understand that for all the ideas that we may decry, there are many other amazing opportunities that they can take and things that they can achieve that lay just the other side of consistent and persistent hard work, commitment, discipline and patience, all of which we encourage.

Affection and love

Most fundamental for me and my wife is that all our kids grow up feeling loved, secure and able to trust that we’re fully behind them throughout their lives. We’ve each played the long-game in building our places in the lives of each other’s kids.

There have been no decrees for my kids to refer to my wife as ‘Mum’ nor for her kids to call me ‘Dad’. Neither of us forces them to hug us, to reciprocate when we say ‘I love you’ or to behave towards us in any way that doesn’t feel comfortable or natural.

We love our kids equally, and bonds have naturally evolved and strengthened as the years have passed. We display our love for each of them individually, for the people that they are and the wonderful traits that each possess. We love them collectively as they are each a vital and appreciated part of our collective brood, our tribe.

Parental Jealousy

My greatest challenge (admitted here for the first time in writing) is in the displays of affection from my teenage son (our only boy) towards his Mum. Like all teens he can be surly and non-communicative. Somewhat paradoxically he frequently also resorts to what I see as displays of clinginess to his mother. I find this difficult to deal with and suppose that it’s a form of jealousy on my part.

I’ve occasionally expressed my feelings on this to my wife, that I see it as unusual for a 14-year-old and wonder if it will cease. I also appreciate that she wants to enjoy feeling like her displays of affection are still wanted by him for as long as he’s willing to tolerate it, and she’s pleased he still reciprocates, which I can understand.

Maybe I’m jealous that he will occasionally link arms or hold her hand when we take a walk as a family, taking my place at her side. Maybe I’m also jealous that my older-teenage daughters seem to have long-since outgrown wanting to do the same with me.

Either way, it’s my issue to overcome, and I’ve no desire for him, or any of our kids to feel like they can’t be affectionate with either of us, nor to think they must compete with either of us for the affection of their parent.
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

Avoiding over-compensation

A final word is preserved for the danger of over-compensating in either reward or punishment towards each others’ kids. I could easily lose the faith of my kids if I were overly lenient towards my step-kids while holding my own to higher standards and punishing them excessively for minor misdemeanours, just to make a point. My step-kids would be similarly and rightly affronted if they felt I deliberately treated them better than my own kids simply to win favour.

Kids are perceptive and will rightly call a parent on this if they feel like they’re being treated more harshly to ease the parent’s conscience regarding step-kids. Mine did on a few occasions in the early days, and it’s a lesson well-learned. In this candid article we witness a similar struggle for a step-parent struggling to navigate the challenges of equal treatment of all kids - it's a minefield!

Being deliberately unfair in favour of step-kids is as bad, if not worse than the reverse. Be wary of the lure of doing so, for it can happen unknowingly, particularly at first.

Summing up

Striving for fairness and equity must be one of the most arduous things to get right in blended families. At first, everyone is on their best behaviour and everything seems new and exciting. All any of us wants to feel within our family, besides love and stability is that we have a fair chance of succeeding, thriving and of being supported.

The classic battle for parents in blended families is not just in striving for equality towards all kids, but in avoiding the pitfall of over-compensating in the opposite direction. We tread the tight-rope of wanting to feel free to praise our own kids as we see fit, without turning things into a ‘mine versus yours’ comparison.

Like most aspects of parenting, and particularly parenting after divorce, I’ve found the best barometer for my actions is always to consider whether my intentions are in the best interests of the kids, first and foremost. If the answer is a strong yes, then I’m likely on the right track. This holds up particularly well as a rule of thumb when striving for equity in the treatment of kids in a blended family.

Give it a try!

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