The Stepparent’s Dilemma
Who parents whom in a blended family? A popular, controversial approach to stepparenting teaches that if they’re not your kids, they’re not your responsibility.
A little over a decade ago, Lori and David Sims were on the brink of a divorce. Lori had one son from a previous relationship, David had four, and although blending the two families went swimmingly at first, “everything went to crap” in year two, Lori told me. She felt that David was too lenient with his kids, but they wouldn’t listen to her and seemed to deeply resent her involvement in their lives. In an attempt to save their relationship, the couple went to see a counselor, but every time Lori complained about the situation with her stepkids, the counselor said, “Lori, they’re not your kids.” “I would say, ‘But I don’t want them to have bad teeth … I don’t want them to do bad in school,’” Lori recalled. The response was always the same.
“All that man said to me is ‘They are nacho kids!’” Lori huffed after the session, sending the couple into a fit of laughter for the first time in months. “The clouds parted, and the rays from heaven came down, and it hit me. They are not my kids. I was creating my own misery by trying to parent these kids who already had two parents.”
The epiphany transformed the way Lori approached stepparenting. If, for example, one of her stepchildren made a mess and didn’t clean it up, she might ask David to clean it up. “Then he can choose whether he does the dishes for the kids, or he has the kids do it,” Lori explained. She stopped worrying over whether they did their chores or finished their homework, and bit her tongue if she disagreed with how David handled a situation with his kids—and it worked.
Lori found the “nacho kids” way so liberating that she and David started a blog about it, and then a Facebook group, which currently has more than 20,000 members, and finally a Nacho Kids academy, where she coaches stepparents on the method, the first step of which is to detach from your parenting role, as she did years ago. On this point, Lori is unwavering: “They are not your kids legally, biologically, or through osmosis … And it’s not an insult; it’s reality.” That doesn’t mean you ignore your stepchildren, Lori explained. You treat them like a friend’s kid, or perhaps a niece or nephew, if things go well enough—just not as a son or daughter.
The term nacho is now ubiquitous on stepparenting forums, but the concept—that stepparents aren’t parents—has other names. Some call it “disengaging,” a term that seems to have originated in an anonymous essay often passed around among stepmothers at their wit’s end. Laura Petherbridge, a stepfamily coach who identifies as a “childless stepmom,” calls it “stepping back without stepping out.” “I never even knew it had a name,” says Diane Roy, a Massachusetts-based mother of two biological kids, one adopted son, and four stepchildren. “I was just calling it ‘I’m done.’”
Despite its growing popularity, “nachoing” remains controversial—among stepparents and in broader society. There is at least one Facebook support group specifically for stepparents who don’t believe in nachoing. And many stepparents do consider their stepkids their own, law and biology be damned. In fact, existing research suggests that the relationship between stepparent and stepchild varies enormously from family to family—and, at least as far as stepkids’ well-being is concerned, that isn’t necessarily a problem.
Stepfamilies have been around nearly as long as families have. “Women died in childbirth; men died working ... Life was brutal and short, and to survive, parents found another partner pretty quickly,” says Lawrence Ganong, an emeritus professor of human development at the University of Missouri who has studied stepfamilies for decades. For most of human history, he told me, stepparents did function as replacement parents—not necessarily in children’s affections, but in assuming the duties of the deceased mother or father. In the 1970s, however, according to Ganong, the number of postdivorce stepfamilies began to outnumber post-bereavement stepfamilies, and with both biological parents in the picture, the stepparent role became less cut-and-dried.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, culture has been slow to adapt. “Many stepparents and their spouses expect the stepparent to act like a parent,” Ganong said. “And that causes problems with many stepfamilies.” In Petherbridge’s experience, stepparents dissatisfied with their spouse’s parenting often try to swoop in and whip the family into shape. “It typically backfires. Nine out of 10 times,” Petherbridge told me.
Many stepparents I spoke with said that their stepchildren rejected their dominion in the home, or that the biological parents failed to adequately reinforce it, leaving stepparents with the responsibilities of a parent but without the authority. Marty Samelak, who has three biological kids and two stepsons, told me that both he and his wife become protective when the other criticizes their biological kids. “If I ever say anything about her kids that’s anywhere slightly near negative, it causes a fight … If she says something about my kids, I get really defensive.” Marty is clearheaded about the fact that he has a different kind of bond with his biological children than he has with his stepkids. “I love [my stepkids], but I don’t love them like I love my kids,” he explained.
Trying to “parent” without a strong bond can make even simple tasks impossible. When Maarit Miller packed lunch for her young stepdaughter, she wouldn’t eat it. When her husband packed exactly the same thing, she did. “She just wasn’t ready to have that relationship with me,” Miller told me. That’s why Miller believes disengagement isn’t so much about giving up as it is about acceptance. “It’s recognizing that trying to parent the kids is driving them further away from you,” she said. “The most loving way I can contribute to my family is by taking a step back.”
The nacho concept rubs some stepparents the wrong way. Natasha Brown, a Texas parent of nine kids—one adopted, six step, and two biological, though she doesn’t usually specify—knows well how difficult blended family life can be, but she has little patience for nacho adherents. “If you marry that guy, you married those kids … And if you are not giving them your whole heart, get out of their lives and get out of their family. You don’t belong there,” Brown told me. In her view, whether the children “accept” the stepparent has nothing to do with it—children resist the boundaries their biological parents set too. And American parenting is already too siloed for Brown’s taste. Stepparents should have a role in parenting, she believes, as should grandparents, aunts, and uncles when needed.
But Lori Sims and others say that the Nacho Kids method’s sullied reputation is rooted in misunderstanding. It’s not “nacho kids, nacho problem”; it’s “nacho kids, nacho responsibility,” Lori clarified. “Nachoing does not equal not caring. It is letting the bio parent do the parenting.”
What that looks like will vary from family to family, but typically it means that although the stepparent might offer advice or compassion to their stepkids or spouse as needed, they stay out of big decisions, such as where the child will attend school or whether they are allowed to get a smartphone. The stepparent might help the stepchild with their homework or some other task upon request, but won’t nag the child to focus if they get distracted. And while the stepparent always looks out for the child’s physical safety, they don’t monitor screen time or hygiene or otherwise manage their well-being—that’s the bio parent’s responsibility. Some of the stepparents I spoke with said their decision to nacho was met with pushback from the bio parent, but their abdication of the parenting role eventually made everyone happier. “It really does allow everyone to win,” Tammy Johnson, a stepmom based in Michigan, said. “You both win your sanity back. The frustration goes away, anxiety decreases. No one feels stuck in the middle anymore … It may feel awkward at first, but eventually it does mellow out.”
Still, a great many stepparents do consider their stepchildren their “real” children, including some of the nacho disciples I consulted for this piece. Diane Roy grew so close to one of her stepchildren that she formally asked her to be her daughter, and offered her a sapphire ring to make their relationship as parent and child official. But she wasn’t able to build such a relationship with all of her stepkids.
The likelihood of a stepparent “claiming” a stepchild depends largely on their shared experiences, says Kirsten van Houdt, a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish Institute for Social Research who conducted a comprehensive study on how stepparents perceive their adult stepchildren. Broadly speaking, the longer a stepparent spends living with and caring for the child during their childhood, the more likely they are to consider them their own as adults. Stepfathers claim their stepkids at about twice the rate stepmothers do (70 percent versus 35 percent, respectively), in part because they live with their stepkids more often, and biological fathers are less likely to be in the picture than biological mothers. Motherhood is also a “heavier load” than fatherhood, van Houdt told me. Societal expectations are higher for mothers than they are for fathers, so she suspects that stepmothers have a harder time feeling like they’ve met them.
Van Houdt’s findings confirm that the roots of parenthood don’t lie only in biology or law. Parenthood can grow from the very responsibilities it carries. But according to Sims and others in her camp, it’s okay if it doesn’t. Stepparents struggling in their role as parent should at least “consider becoming something else,” as Petherbridge put it.
The question is: what? “There’s not one definition, which is a blessing and a curse. You get to define your role,” Kristen Skiles, a Texas-based stepmom coach, told me. That lines up with existing scholarship on the subject. “A growing body of research shows that there’s so much variability in the role a stepparent can take on, and this is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. There’s not one right way to do this,” says Todd Jensen, a research assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied patterns of interaction between stepparents and their stepkids. He’s found that some stepparents are only casually connected to their stepkids, while others are involved in specific areas such as school or sports, and still others are engaged in practically every area of the child’s life. According to his research—and with the exception of children whose stepparents were totally inactive in their life—stepkids seemed to fare equally well in all situations, Jensen told me.
On that point, Lori Sims offers her family as proof. Her marriage has survived. Her now-adult stepkids are thriving. And her relationship with them—more like friends than kin—is wholesome and warm. “If we can overcome this, and if I can learn to keep my mouth shut, and I can build bonds with the stepkids … then anybody can do it,” Lori said. “The thing is not to give up.”