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The rewarding ways stepmoms and stepdads can shape kids

In the nature vs. nurture debate, stepparents have only nurture. For this stepmom, that isn’t a limitation.


At my husband Daniel’s suggestion, we spent the past year listening to the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series with my stepson. When we started at the beginning of the pandemic, we were unsure if my stepson, then only 6, would be able to sit still and pay attention to the narrator. While he was quickly interested in the story, we struggled those first few months as the three of us listened as a family, pausing frequently to tell him to stop thrashing around on the living room ottoman and to stay still.

But by the time we hit the third book, we noticed we didn’t have to pause to correct his behavior nearly as often. Now we are on the final book, which we hope to wrap up in time for our long-anticipated visit to Harry Potter World in Orlando. He listens with rapt attention, only occasionally raising his hand to ask a relevant question about the book — and believe me, he has asked some stumpers about how things work at Hogwarts. I hope no one introduces him to J.K. Rowling’s Twitter feed.

I don’t know if maturity has led to his calmer behavior or if it’s the repetition of this activity during the three nights each week we have him, but his willingness to sit and listen to the books has carried over into other areas of previous frustrations, like getting him to focus on the task at hand at the dinner table and taking instructions from his soccer coach. Has it been nature taking its course, or nurture through formed good habits? I have no idea.

My son’s stepfather and nature vs. nurture

We often hear about parenting from a nature vs. nurture perspective. As a stepparent, I know I only have nurturing as an option for shaping my husband’s son — I can never brag he has my brains or my athletic skills (the latter is absolutely to his advantage). But this “limitation” of nurturing him has proved to be rewarding in a number of ways, like seeing him employ good sportsmanship in soccer games, encouraging him to read books I know he will enjoy and using literature to teach him about social justice when he might not learn about it at his age otherwise.

It is sometimes hilarious for me to see traits of my husband in my stepson. Even at this age, they share an offbeat sense of humor and a love for non sequiturs. In turn, when I catch my husband doing something we often see in my stepson, I will tease my husband, “Wherever does he get it from?” All three of us walk around our house quoting lines from “Tim and Eric” sketches my stepson has (thankfully) never seen but takes great delight in.

I didn’t expect to become a parent. Early into getting to know my stepson, I dived into some stepmom culture: A Facebook group here, a podcast there. It became clear that, for some, it’s hard to be a stepparent because you’re often seen as a third-tier authority figure and the last one to know anything. But I feel I have had it pretty easy: Daniel is very communicative, keeping me in the loop with soccer schedule changes or logistical matters well before I ask. And he has always been encouraging of my parenting at a level at which I feel comfortable. In the early days of our relationship, and pre-pandemic, this meant I could “escape” to roller derby practice or go to a coffee shop to get some writing done. His no-pressure attitude made it a lot easier for me to come around to parenting more naturally and at my own pace. And the more I got to know Daniel’s son, the more I wanted to spend time with him.

Because I am not a biological parent, at first I had this tiny voice in my head that was willing to give myself a pass for however my stepson turns out. Maybe downplaying the weight of my responsibility took some of the pressure off, especially for someone who didn’t envision becoming a parent. But now, that voice is long gone. I am far more invested in my stepson’s achievements, efforts, actions and words than I could have predicted.

Practice and repetition are the tools of nurturing, and they can improve upon the talent that nature bestows. My stepson came by his intelligence honestly. He has smart biological parents who brought their own mix of interests and personality traits into who he is. But I’d be surprised if he had the excellent vocabulary he has without me, because I am a person who frankly never learned how to talk to children and instead ends up talking to them at times like they are adults. He surely wouldn’t have the reading comprehension of a third-grader without the books we read, including several about social justice issues. And whether he realizes it or not, I was the one who brought vegetables into the house. An infamously picky eater, my stepson skated by without anything green on his plate for the first five years of his life, or so I am told. We started adding broccoli and Brussels sprouts to the mix, which was a horrible fight at first. But after nearly three years of getting roasted vegetables and knowing he isn’t leaving the table until he eats them, he eats them.

She became a stepmother, and the best Nicole

But my shining moment as a stepparent was this spring, on the soccer field. My stepson is athletic, something nearly impossible for me to relate to — my sports endeavors didn’t begin until I started playing roller derby at 25. But while Daniel always tells his son to be aggressive and take shots and do whatever it takes to get to the ball, I always chime in at the end with my own rhetoric about making sure he’s having fun and being a good teammate.

The other day, he was playing in a soccer game, and he took a great shot at the goal. The other team’s goalie was a little girl, and she caught the ball in a deft save. Without missing a beat, my stepson said to her, “Good job!”

I melted on the spot.

I’m not about to take sole credit for his good sportsmanship, but it does make me feel like he’s listening when I tell him to make that a priority. This kid gets a lot of messages from authority figures, and sometimes he gets competing ones. But I know he is always listening.

While I am more than happy to leave the nature vs. nurture debate up to the parenting experts, I can say how surprised I am at the level of pride and satisfaction I feel at seeing the results of nurturing alone. I hope that tool serves me well.

Meryl Williams Clark is a writer and stepparent in Williamstown, W.Va. Find her on Twitter @MerylWilliams.

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