Fairy tale families

Banishing the myth of the evil stepfather

Date published: 2006-04-12 2:54:24 PM

We all remember how Cinderella’s evil stepmother locked her in the cellar to prevent her from going to the ball, but what about stepfathers? While they may not be vilified in fairy tales and fables like their female counterparts, society still tends to see them in a harsh light.

The media, in particular, tend to paint all stepfathers with the same brush. Sex crimes and abuse committed by a handful of men, have created stereotypes that throw a veil of suspicion over all men who decide to take on this difficult parenting role.

“Some stepfathers even internalize these prejudices and myths, and feel unable to meet the challenges of parenting as a result,” says Claudine Parent, a social psychology professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Parent is working to separate myth from reality and media images from actual men.

“According to the latest studies, both mothers and stepfathers want stepfathers to play an active role in parenting,” Parent points out. “But the same studies also show that some stepfathers neglect their parental responsibilities because, among other reasons, they are afraid of usurping the non-custodial father’s rights or do not feel authorized to deal with their stepchildren.”

At the same time, other stepfathers actively involve themselves in their stepchildren’s lives—playing sports, supervising homework, organizing vacations, and so on. The goal of Parent’s research is to replace the “evil stepfather” stereotype with images of involved and committed parents, which are closer to the truth. But while she recognizes this new ideal will require lots of time to take root, she remains hopeful about the image of the modern stepfather.

“First of all, there are more involved stepfathers than uncommitted stepfathers,” she notes. “Second, knowing a ‘nice’ stepfather among one’s friends or family often offsets the negative media images. Third, at least in the print media, magazines in particular, I detect a change in tone and approach: they are beginning to publish more detailed and better researched articles on the role of stepfathers.”

By exposing stereotypes and false assumptions about stepfathers, and replacing them with facts based on research, Parent’s work will help stepfathers become better fathers to their stepchildren as well as contribute to overall healthier relationships in blended families.

Claudine Parent's research on blended families is funded by SSHRC's Standard Research Grants program.