Family has been a main focus on television since the beginning of the television, beginning with families like the Cleavers and the Waltons — good, wholesome people who seemed to reflect the spirit of the American family in the 50’s and 60’s.
As the years progressed, the American family began to change. Divorce rates soared and the number of single-parent households rose. Families began to take on a different shape. Stepfamilies — families with one or both parents married previously with children–became more and more common.
As the times changed, TV changed along with it. Shows centered on stepfamilies began to air. These shows rarely portray what a stepfamily is like in reality, however. One TV sitcom about a stepfamily in particular, “Step-by-Step,” is exceptionally fictitious.
As with many TV shows that are supposed to merely entertain, many situations are exaggerated for effect and plots are stretched to inconceivable limits. The characters seem unbelievably naive and get involved in ridiculous predicaments.
“Step-by-Step” is no exception. The two parents of the show, Carol and Frank, had each been married before and had children from these marriages. Carol has three kids, and Frank has two. During the first season of the show, only a few episodes focused on the issue of the new family, such as the kids not getting along or everyone having to make adjustments because of the new situation. Halfway through the first season, though, all family problems seemed to be resolved and the plots began to resemble a typical sitcom’s. Being part of a stepfamily myself, I know firsthand that the short-lived “problems” the characters in “Step-by-Step” experienced don’t resemble at all what the members in a stepfamily must go through in real life.
Along with having “normal” family problems, such as raising teenagers and staying on a budget, stepfamilies have many other issues to deal with. No mention was ever made in the show about ex-spouses, child support, or visitation rights, yet all these things play a large role in a typical stepfamily. This could simply be because Carol’s and Frank’s ex-spouses weren’t in the picture for one reason or another and never posed a problem, but the children never mentioned their other parent either, which again seems highly unrealistic.
The biggest discrepancy between the TV stepfamily and a real life stepfamily is the relationships of the family members with one another. Everyone on the show gets along pretty well, even for a traditional family. In the beginning, Carol’s oldest daughter didn’t get along well with Frank (which is not at all uncommon in a stepfamily); there were also a few problems with Carol’s girls and Frank’s daughter not getting along. But these situations were handled in the typical TV fashion — rather lightly and very short-lived.
In reality, however, such circumstances are not so easy to deal with. One important problem in a stepfamily is the relationship between stepparents and stepchildren. If the children’s biological parents keep in contact with them, the kids might not regard their stepparents as legitimate parts of their life. If the children have a “real” mom or dad, why would they need a step-dad or step-mom? The child might resent the new stepparent for trying to take the place of their natural parent. The biological parent, in turn, might try to pull the child away from the stepparent, feeling threatened by the new parent’s presence. If a child’s natural parent is no longer around, the child may feel that there is no true parent for him or her and not accept the new stepparent.
This very problem happened in my family. Sharon, my mother, commented on this, saying, “My husband made no effort to reach out to my older kids. My youngest didn’t even remember his father at all, so my husband became a father to him, but not to the older ones, who never considered him to be their real father. He has two daughters himself and the same thing happened with them toward me. They had a mother, so I was just considered to be their father’s wife.”
These kinds of attitudes that children and stepparents might have toward each other create other hassles for the family as well. Discipline problems are extremely common. Is the child going to be disciplined by the new stepparent, the natural parent, or both? In cases where there are children in the family from both the stepparent and the natural parent, favoritism may occur, in discipline and elsewhere.
The “her kids, my kids” syndrome becomes all too familiar in this kind of situation among stepfamilies, causing tension not only among the parents, but affecting the children’s relationships with each other. My mother and stepfather would argue constantly about punishments given to us kids. My step-dad would intervene and not be so strict with his own kids, but with my brothers and me, he would never get involved.
This eventually started affecting my relationship with my stepsisters. I began to resent them for it, but I never wanted to start anything with them, so I kept my mouth shut. I would complain to my mother, who claimed she understood but couldn’t do anything about it and my relationship with her worsened too. My family was extremely volatile. Bitter arguments could erupt at any given time, so everyone was careful to tiptoe around the house so as not to offend anyone.
The stress of dealing with family problems is probably not unfamiliar to anyone. In a stepfamily, the stress level is even greater because of the greater number of problems involved. Many stepfamilies go through counseling to help everyone deal with the issues that come up. About a year after my two stepsisters began to live with us, my family was having a lot of problems. They weren’t respecting my mother as a parent and my stepfather would constantly take their side against my mother.
My family was divided down the middle. Counseling helped us through some tough times and I believe it was beneficial to all of us. Today we still have some problems beneath the surface that haven’t been dealt with yet, but overall, things are better.
When I asked my mom what she thought of shows that depicted stepfamilies (in particular, “Step-by-Step”) she answered, “Well, it’s all right. Sometimes it’s funny, but I wouldn’t go any further than that. No one should look at this show and assume that that’s how a typical stepfamily is.” She says that if shows that were realistic about stepfamilies were aired on TV and people could see the emotional trauma and problems involved, maybe people would think twice about getting divorced and remarried.
“It’s not that easy,” Sharon said.
While TV today is trying to reflect the changing times, it’s not always doing a good job. “Step-by-Step” is simply a sitcom shown for entertainment, but what makes the show unique is that it involves a stepfamily. At the same time, however, it doesn’t give a realistic picture of what a typical stepfamily is like.
A true portrayal of real life could be beneficial for everyone and while some other current issues are being addressed, to my knowledge, an honest picture of a stepfamily has yet to come. I agree with my mom in saying that perhaps if people knew what to expect concerning forming a second family that maybe they’d be a little more hesitant to end a marriage. Since television plays a large role in Americans’ lives, it seems to be the only way to convey the message. Shows like “Step-by-Step” just don’t serve any purpose in this endeavor.
Psych Central. (2012). Stepfamilies on TV: Step by Step. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/stepfamilies-on-tv-step-by-step/00010514
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.