Stepfamilies: Defining Values

Part of defining your expectations and goals, whether personal or for the family, is understanding your values. You probably have at least a vague sense of your values and how they fit into your image of ideal stepfamily life. But have you written them down? Have you clearly communicated them? Bet not. Here's how to do so:

Make a List of Values

Hey, you're not doing this alone: This is a family activity that works best when it includes everybody. Defining the Family Values is best done, or at least begun, during a family meeting (hold your horses, we're getting there!).

The Family Values aren't so much a set of specifics (“Put the toilet seat down when you are done”) as they are a set of behavior guidelines that reflect the underlying values (“We listen to everybody's opinion”). The list of Family Values is sort of like a mission statement that states explicitly how you (the family) expect family members to behave.

Here are some questions (from Mom's Guide to Disciplining Your Child, by Vicki Poretta and Ericka Lutz) to talk about as you begin developing your own Family Values list:

  • How do I like people to treat me?
  • What's the best way to let somebody know how I feel?
  • Is it okay to hit somebody when I'm angry?
  • How do I like my things to be treated?
  • What do I feel are important manners?
  • When we have a fight, what kind of behavior is okay with me, and what kind of behavior don't I like?

As you chat, jot the answers down and begin forming your list. The values you write should be nonspecific enough to apply to everybody. Make sure there are not too many values. If you keep them basic, you'll do fine. When you're done, you can post the list on the refrigerator, or next to the toilet—somewhere where everybody will see them on a regular basis.

In her book, Positive Parenting from A to Z, Karen Renshaw Joslin recommends the following four values:

  1. We use words to tell others how we feel. We do not name-call or use bad language.
  2. We do not hurt others physically or emotionally.
  3. We do not hurt each other's property or our own.
  4. We work to get out of a problem, not stay in it.

Use “I” Statements

Stepfamily relationships are very delicate. When you're talking about serious stuff in a stepfamily, you have to be careful to strike the right tone, or you risk putting your stepchild (or your mate) on the defensive. There's a real danger in beginning your statements with the word “You.” You'll appear to be blaming, and you'll give the impression that you think only your perceptions are correct.


An “I” statement is a statement about your feelings, views, needs, likes, or dislikes that begins with the word “I.” “I” statements tell the listener that you're speaking from your own point of view.

You will get nowhere with your stepkids when you begin sounding accusatory. Blaming and self-righteousness (or the appearance of them) are not good places to begin a dialog. You also risk escalating negative feelings—if you start with a “You” statement and they come back with a “You” statement, then it's “You,” “You,” “You!” all the way to misery.

On the other hand, when you begin a statement about your perceptions, feelings, or preferences with the word “I,” your family can listen because you don't seem accusatory, and you're obviously speaking only from your own point of view. Using “I” statements is humble—it implies that you're willing to at least hear another opinion or perception. Using “I” statements will also help you to clarify your own perceptions, feelings, and preferences. The wonderful thing about “I” statements is that they don't call special attention to themselves. You don't have to announce that you are using a new communication technique—just try and watch the results.

Don't Judge

Here's a warning: Beware of that wolf in sheep's clothing—the lowly judgment parading as an “I” statement. “I” statements are designed to describe your feelings, not your opinions. If you can change the word “feel” to “think” in your “I” statement and have it make sense, you are judging: “When you ignore me when I ask you to set the table, I feel that you're a spoiled little brat.” Whoa, Nellie! Try again: “When you don't respond to me when I ask you to set the table, I feel disregarded and angry.”


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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