A+ Advice for Parents

Q: We have a newly blended family thanks to a recent marriage. My husband and I have different views about school for our teens. I'm casual. He's strict, causing family tension. The school counselor suggests we work over the summer to "better align" our expectations. Where should we go for help?

A: Blended families are filled with joy -- and usually challenges. It's confusing for kids when parents and stepparents have differing expectations.

"Generally speaking, the issues are rarely either/or black or white," says Stephen Gray Wallace, author and founder of the nonprofit Center for Adolescent Research and Education (ecareforkids.org). "It's not a question of whether to have expectations for each other's children with regard to schoolwork; it's about having the right ones."

Make a list of your differing expectations: Do you differ on how much screen time the kids get? Whether to take them out of school for long weekends? To demand A's or accept C's? Talk them through with each other, then with your teens to try to strike a balance.

"It is also important to remember that doing well in school is but one metric of success we generally hope for our children," says Wallace. "Don't get hung up on whether this assignment was handed in, or who studies with the TV on. What matters most is daily face-to-face conversation. I call it 'serve and return' parenting that allows teens time and space to talk with you and surface things that may be bothering them."

To get a broader perspective, Wallace suggests three books:

-- "Teach Your Children Well" by Madeleine Levine (Harper Perennial, 2013). Levine's view is that "while we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life. Our job is to help them ... be resilient in the face of adversity, to approach the world with zest ... and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to the world."

-- "Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations" by Ron Fournier (Harmony Books, 2016). The author identifies distinct styles of parenting: indulgent, authoritarian, authoritative and uninvolved. "Each differs in the extent to which it is 'demanding' and 'responsive,'" says Wallace. "Authoritative parents tend to fare best in eliciting the types of behavior they seek because they are clear about their expectations, but also engage their children in dialogue so that they can understand the rationale behind the rules."

-- "Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence" by Laurence Steinberg (Mariner Books, 2015). The book spells out clearly the new research on how adolescent brains work and suggests ways to instill self-control and responsibility during teenage years.

You might ask your pediatrician to direct you to a family therapist or marriage counselor who can help sort out differing expectations, says Wallace.

"A couple I know took this route with their blended family of eight," he explains. "The parents learned techniques to steer the new 'ship.' While it took longer for the kids to get on board, they did and are all successfully launched in their adult lives now."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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