Two Houses – Two Sets of Rules?

Janell Burley Hofmann, October 28, 2013

Dear Janell,

My question revolves around your iRule #1, the foundation. My stepchild bought his own iTouch and his Mom bought and maintains his phone contract. There was a recent, serious breech in the form of a texting incident with serious ramifications for the child. Because we are a blended family with different sets of values, the incident resulted in the phone being taken away and then eventually returned. But there are still NO rules or instructions given for proper use at his other household. We have adopted instead, “It’s our house, when you are here it’s our rules.” He doesn’t think we’re the greatest. Ultimately, we can not control the other household where he lives and we have no common values. Any thoughts on how to adopt rules in two households with conflicting messages? I’m worried about my stepson’s safety and reputation. We understand and would welcome any suggestions.




Hi Donna,

My iRule #1: “I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?” Let’s start here. My son Gregory does not think that we are the greatest because we bought him a cell phone. He thinks we are the greatest because we leave him no choice. We love him and feed him and encourage him and talk to him and set boundaries for him. In doing so, we make it impossible for him not to wake up everyday and say “Holy Shit. My parents are the real deal.” He thought of us in the very same way prior to iPhone ownership than he did post iPhone ownership. His love for us is not measured conditionally, but maybe a brief spike in joy upon receiving this gift, his love for us is undeniably permanent. As I’m sure your stepson’s is too. Go ahead, hold onto that idea for a minute, “His love for me is permanent.” When you embody and live this idea, parenting becomes less foggy and more crystallized. You suddenly have super human parenting strength because you know your child will love you not in spite of your rules and guidelines, but because of them. And I can tell by your letter, that this is exactly what you already know.

So let’s talk about the other house. If I gathered all of the parenting questions I’ve ever received throughout time, the “parenting in two places” question shows itself over and over again. You are not alone. Go ahead, hold onto that idea too. I am not alone. Ending relationships, blending families, sharing children, differing values, confused communication, and emotional tension can be an overwhelming way to parent. I don’t live this way, but I watched as my parents did. My parents divorced when I was an adult, but my younger sisters were still young. I watched the stress thermometer come to a boil on a regular basis because both of my parents brought every bit of their marriage chaos to the co-parenting table. My Dad, God love him, didn’t see my sisters every day, so when he did, he hardly wanted to parent them. Here, I am using the word “parent” as a verb. He wanted to be their Dad, of course, he just didn’t want to discipline, do homework, struggle over curfews, or see that the chores were done. To my Dad, parenting became a steak dinner, an ice cream and a few hours of conversation on a Tuesday night, an appearance at a game, a scan of a report card. He didn’t love us less, but he softened. The intensity and passion he once possessed from the center of our household evolved into a weekly hug and kiss for making fatherhood so damn easy.

And then there was my Mom. She showed up in every inch of parenting. For every bit of leisure my Dad enjoyed with the girls, my Mom made sure she tripled the intensity he once had, but now lacked. She built a career that made certain she was home every minute my sisters were. She held the highest standards and never backed down. If the girls were drinking at a party in the woods, she’d go find them and drag them home. If the girls were struggling in math, there was no hurdle she wouldn’t jump to get them support. She was a warrior in the field of raising daughters. Every project or paper, softball game or social event had my mother’s determined presence – damned if she wasn’t all in for her girls. She mothered from her gut, the very center of her being and every now and then that primal place would bite down hard and hurt. But suddenly my parents had nothing in common, not even us. Their once steadfast parenting partnership forked straight down the center of my sisters’ youth. And without warning, their approach to their separate lives became as different as their approach to parenting. That was the most painful split of all. I’m pretty sure your stepson feels that too.

So here’s the thing when it comes to parenting: somebody needs to seriously step up. That someone needs to be you. You say that your stepson had “an incident that resulted in the phone being taken away” and you are “worried for his safety and reputation”. Nothing in the world can matter more to you than this. Nothing more can matter than your child’s self respect and safety. Do what needs to be done. Gather the powerful force of your stepmother bear wisdom. Lead the charge. Even if he comes back at you with his claws out, set rules based on your core knowledge. Look straight into his eyes until he knows for certain that you will protect him until he is wise enough to protect himself. Tell all the people involved in raising this child the work you are going to do. Even if you want to reach across the table and strangle those other people, even if they can’t hear it yet or laugh in your face, tell those people that this boy’s life – his safety, his sense of self – is in your collective hands. You may not change them. It is likely you will never parent from the same place as those folks. But you, stepmother bear, are ferocious in your love for this child. I know this because otherwise you would never have taken the time to write to me about your worries, about your love. Control what is before you the best you can, then love with all of your might. And maybe when this boy feels your powerful, outrageous, consistent parenting love, it will not matter which household he is in, and who has made what rules. Instead, he will finally understand his own beauty and worth, because he saw his reflection in your eyes.

Be you,


Post a comment regarding this post (all fields are required).