I met my stepson the day after Christmas, barely over a year ago. For the most part, I’ve become a pretty tough man, emotionally distant and guarded. Despite this, I was still nervous to meet the boy who would become a part of my family.

When I met him, he was just two months shy of three years old. I’ve always loved and wanted kids, but the past year or two led me to push any hopes and dreams of parenthood aside. I’d gone through a divorce that left me thinking I should be single and without kids the rest of my life. Obviously, all that has changed.

I’m used to kids pretty much warming up to me in a heartbeat. This was different. I’m not sure if he was shy or if he saw me as a threat. After all, he wasn’t used to a man being around his mother. Either way, he didn’t pay me much mind. Perhaps he was just as shy to talk to me as I was to talk to him.

It’s cliché to say, but reality hit me that night. He was loved, taken care of, and given undivided attention by his mother. This love was something I wouldn’t ever know again, nor could I remember. To love as a mother does was a feeling I would never grasp. This scared the crap out of me. That little boy playing teatime and getting the choice between strawberry and chocolate milk was her world and she was his. How could I compare?

I’m happy to say, that much of that has changed and his mother and I have a successful co-parenting relationship and he sees me as a parent as well.

In the past year I’ve learned a lot, so here are a few things to remember when you’re just getting started on being a stepfather. All of these tips apply to any gender, but speaking from my own experience they will be put in mostly heteronormative terms.

1 | Don’t expect them to understand partnership right away

I remember hearing his mother’s voice on the other side of the door, saying that she was having a “friend” over. It didn’t hurt, but it reminded me that a child simply can’t grasp the concept of partnership. After all, he was used to his dad living in one place and his mother in another. Eventually, the child will be excited to know that you love their parent. I remember my spouse explaining to my stepson what “engaged” means.

“He gave me this ring to show that he loves me,” she said.

“I want a ring!” was his answer.

2 | Accept the fact that you are not the biological parent

For months I was insecure about the fact that he just saw me as some guy who came over and spent time with him and his mom. Eventually, it hit me that, at three years old, it’s hard to understand much more than that. Don’t worry, sooner or later they connect the dots.

Part of being a stepfather is recognizing that you haven’t been with that kid all their life like their biological parents have. It takes time to develop trust with an adult and probably just as much, if not more to develop it with a child.

Remember, blood is not always family. I’ve known a lot of deadbeat dads in my time, be they stepfathers or not, which has told me that love and attention are more important than titles like mother and father. As Keanu Reaves says in“Parenthood” – “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish! But they’ll let any (explicit) be a father.”

If they’re older, they might have those “You’re not my real dad,” emotions, but in my experience when they’re young, this kind of thing is probably all in your head, so be proud to call yourself a stepparent.

3 | Patience, patience, and more patience

I cannot stress this enough, but patience is always key. My connection to my stepson was not an instant bond. In truth, I thought he hated me.

At first, I was intimidated by the fact that, like me, he loved his mother more than anything. I came to realize that this was our common bond. Kids sense love and by seeing that I loved her and treated her well, he came to know that I was someone to look up to and trust. They say we learn to treat our spouses from the way our parents treat each other. I can only hope that I set the best example I can, the same way my father did.

So what did I do? I took my time. We made a tradition of having me over for dinner each Sunday night. I played with him every now and then, though it took time for him to even remember my name. I didn’t take part in any kind of discipline. Instead, I remained behind the scenes, giving her advice where I could and helping out with simple chores like making dinner, cleaning up his clothes, and putting away laundry. I made a habit of keeping up with tasks he trusted me to do, like buckling him into his car seat or handing him his dinner.

Next thing I knew I was singing along to “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the way home from his father’s and helping with potty training by bonding on the fact we could both pee standing up. We would take him to the playground to wear him out before dinner and one day, after he fell asleep in the car, I offered to carry him up to the apartment for his mom. “Hold me,” he said as he woke up, and for the first time, my partner got to see me carry him as though he were mine.

A biological parent has the advantage of having always been there. They have always been a figure of authority and a figure of nourishment. With enough time and effort, you can be too.

4 | Understand that the child will always be your partner’s first priority

Unless you have kids of your own, this one is hard to understand.

The biological parent has created life and that life will come before anything else. They will feed their children before they feed themselves. They will work any job to pay bills and keep a roof over their heads. This means that you may have to spend less time with your partner because they’re busy taking care of their child. If you want to maintain a healthy relationship, you need to be supportive. Stand behind your partner when times are rough. Until you are truly declared a stepparent, they are a single parent and that’s no easy task.

5 | Don’t discipline right away

She may appreciate your advice as long as it’s not anything aggressive. Men, especially, are often under the impression that only other men can give proper discipline, that mothers are just sort of weak when it comes to keeping their kids in line, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A study done by the National Institutes of Health says that to be effective, discipline needs to be “given by an adult with an effective bond to the child.” Unless you’ve developed this bond, it’s too early to start disciplining a child.

I used to think that by raising my deep voice, I could back my partner up when she told her child to do something, but all he did was smile at me. Remember, humans learn by example and the example you set will always be more important than any kind of discipline. I would venture to say that yelling, demanding, and using intimidation are just ways to make your child even more defiant.

It might drive you crazy to just sit and watch as he bites your partner, spits, and does all manner of bratty and mean things. Hang in there. If you’re in this for the long run, (which you’d better be,) sooner or later you’ll get to help. That won’t be easy either, but a single parent will be very grateful for any contribution. You’ll find that contributing and supporting them might be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

6 | When helping out your partner, remember this phrase: Praise, Correct, Praise

This is a mantra I learned during my time teaching martial arts as a teenager. It applies both to helping your partner and parenting.

First, praise them, “Hey, you do a really good job of putting him to bed each night.” Correct them, “I think you could stand to be a bit more patient when dropping him off at school.” Praise again, “However, I really liked how you offered a reward for good behavior.”

This could also be called positive, critical, positive. If you start off with a critical statement, it negates any kind words. If you begin and end with a positive statement, it can help give your partner confidence while still getting the feedback they need to improve.

7 | Remember that sometimes just having you around is all your partner needs

If your partner has been a single parent for many years, or in many cases, since the child’s birth, chances are they are excited to have someone else around their kid. They are also putting an incredible amount of trust in you, and once that trust is broken it may not be regained. You may feel useless, but I assure you, you are not. It is my sincere belief that the majority of single parents find joy in any kind of help or support that you offer, even if it just means being there for them when the going gets tough.

It’s the little things that count. Baby steps.

Some questions to ask yourself:
  • What does being a parent mean to you?
  • Do you envision yourself having more children with your partner in the future?
  • Does your frustration or happiness show around your partner and stepchild?
Plans for the future:
  • Take the time to sit back, watch your partner and learn. Participate when asked to, but first and foremost, observe. Be seen and not heard until called upon.
  • Talk to your partner about any insecurities you might have.
  • Support your partner’s methods; don’t just do things your way. This creates negative tension. If you oppose their method, say it away from the child.