Lucy Rycroft explains how blended families can be supportive to children in their faith journey
Whether we live with step-children or a partner who is step-parenting our children, or are parenting alone with children of different parentage, the challenges of blended families are real.
Is it possible, within this environment, to parent our children for faith? And, if so, how?
No family is perfect
You may feel weary with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of your children between homes and families, the battles with an ex-partner, or the tensions with a new one over differing parenting styles. But be encouraged: there is no such thing as a fully functional family. We are all dysfunctional – that’s why we need Jesus!
The Bible tells many stories of imperfect families: Eli’s sons were off the rails (1 Samuel 2), Hosea’s wife was unfaithful multiple times (Hosea), and David’s son raped his own half-sister (2 Samuel 13). Family life has always been hard work.
We might think that we’re giving our child a ‘worse’ model of faith because our marriage didn’t work out – but any challenge our family goes through is an opportunity to point to the perfection of Jesus, and how we need his grace every day. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
Rather than have our children idolise their seemingly-perfect parents (and then grow up to realise they’re not so perfect), we want them to idolise an actually-perfect God. Creating windows into our imperfections, and how we rely on God’s grace, gives our children a realistic idea of what life with God looks like.
Negotiate fair boundaries for all
If your ex is not a Christian, they might put their foot down about the Christian input your child receives. Work towards compromise as best you can. You may not be able to have total freedom over your child’s spiritual disciplines – but neither should your former partner.
Perhaps your negotiations will result in your child coming to church when they’re with you and not when with their other parent? Or perhaps you’ll compromise at reading the Bible together, but not praying. (For a tool to help you read the Bible, go here)
It is worth trying to maintain a positive relationship with your ex, if at all possible, although it might feel frustrating. (We explored this in an episode of the Parenting for Faith podcast, where a Christian couple were navigating raising a child whose birth father was an atheist.)
But remember that neither of you can control the decisions your children make for themselves. So, as much as possible, remove yourself as ‘high priest’ in your child’s faith journey. Allow them to connect with God for themselves. (This idea is explored more in the video Conversation Prayer – Chat from the Parenting for Faith course.)
Encourage your child to chat to God on their own. Parenting for Faith has a helpful download available, called 101 Ways to Start a Conversation with God, which gives lots of ideas (101, in fact!).
Above all, pray that your child would connect deeply with God, despite the restrictions.
Aim for peaceful co-parenting
If you have remarried and are now parenting your child with a spouse who has become a step-parent, it’s natural that there will be some clashes in parenting styles. There might also be some tension: do you get the final say, as your child’s legal parent, or are you going to aim to co-parent equally?
There needs to be real grace in how we listen to each other here. The step-parent needs to acknowledge that the legal parent has had the most experience with their child, and is likely to have good knowledge of the sorts of strategies and boundaries that work well.
On the other hand, the legal parent needs to acknowledge that, long-term, family relationships will be most successful if the step-parent is fully empowered to be a parent to their step-child. The legal parent might also pick up new ideas from how their new partner carries out their parenting.
Moreover, if your new spouse is a Christian, this is a wonderful opportunity for your child to see the life of a different Christian adult up close. Encourage your spouse to create windows into their spiritual disciplines so that your child can see how they do life with God.
Working out this balance isn’t easy but can be an exciting growth journey for a new couple, as they learn from each other, grow in their parenting competence, and together provide a stable, safe and loving home for the children within it.
Pick your tribe
We were never meant to parent our families in isolation, so gather around you some trusted Christian friends who can support you and your children as you navigate this journey.
It’s not always easy to open up to others, but when we do, we often discover more understanding than we’d imagined. Churches are not, as we imagine, full of people in perfect marriages – many people have had marital difficulties, sought counselling or been through divorce. And even those who haven’t have probably had some experience of walking this journey with family or friends.
As a single mum wrote in an article called When Father’s Day isn’t Easy: “I may not be able to influence my daughter’s dad, but I can build a rich network of relationships that bring us joy and wisdom as well as people who are there when we need them. That is church at its best!”
So find the people who’ll help you and your children to find God within your circumstances. People who won’t judge, or suggest that your child is ‘lucky’ now that they have a step-parent. People who will pray for you all, take your child out for a treat or babysit so you can get a break. The article Helping single parents flourish in church might be a useful resource if you’re reading this as a supporter.
The Parenting for Faith podcast covers a wide range of topics including supporting your child through divorce and singleness. Do give it a listen.
Leading a blended family is a challenge, but not one you have to navigate alone. God is with you, equipping and strengthening you as you parent your children for faith.