Sunday, August 01, 2004
Demographers estimate that one-third of American children will live with a stepparent by the time they turn 18. The vast majority of these stepparents will be men. In this useful and timely book, University of Florida sociology professor William Marsiglio tackles the little-explored territory of stepfathers' parenting experiences and inner lives.
Marsiglio and his team of researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 36 stepfathers of diverse backgrounds. Written in accessible language, this book covers many of the challenges stepfathers face in trying to build harmonious homes and close relationships with their stepchildren.
Many of the issues, such as how to discipline a partner's child or what stepchildren should call their stepfathers, will be familiar to stepparent readers.
Others are less so. Marsiglio devotes a full chapter to how stepfathers relate to biological fathers, suggesting that a stepfather can serve as an ally to the biological father.
Marsiglio writes that stepfathers' actions often follow one of three trajectories: self-as-father, which involves thinking about oneself as a father; father-child, which consists of acting fatherly toward both biological and nonbiological children, and co-parental, in which stepfathers act as part of a parenting team.
Yet Marsiglio's work is most effective when he inserts the words of the stepfathers themselves-something he does extensively. He also draws on his own experiences as a teenage father and as someone who was in a stepfather relationship for several years. These elements add to the book's credibility because they establish Marsiglio's personal involvement with the topic and help explain the trust he develops with his subjects.
The news is generally hopeful but Marsiglio does include stepfathers whose relationships with their stepchildren and partners are unsuccessful. Nevertheless, he explains that many stepfathers are able to successfully navigate the territory and forge meaningful connections with their wives and stepchildren.
Although this book holds particular interest for stepfathers, single mothers and remarried couples, it also has a broader appeal because of how it addresses parenting issues. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
Not much learning from the homeschooling lessons here What the Rest of Us Can Learn from Homeschooling: How A+ Parents Give Their Traditionally Schooled Kids the Academic Edge, by Linda Dobson, Dimensions, 2003, $14.95.
Linda Dobson homeschooled her children and has nothing but good things to say about it. She does not have anything good to say, however, about sending children to school. Though she never comes out and says it in her new book, What the Rest of Us Can Learn from Homeschooling, she obviously feels it is our duty, as conscientious parents, to homeschool our children. Traditional schools suffocate our children's intellects and creativity.
Feeling the force of this subtextual condemnation, it becomes difficult to follow Dobson's suggestions for bringing what she calls "the learning lifestyle" of a homeschooling household into the home of a non-homeschooling family-especially when she so clearly has no idea what a day looks like in a home in which children go to school.
Written in an easy-to-read but poorly organized and repetitive style, Dobson's book addresses topics such as encouraging your children's natural interests, allowing them to set their own educational agenda and taking advantage of local resources.
As the author of five homeschooling books, Dobson may be an expert on homeschooling, but she doesn't seem to realize that many parents of traditionally schooled children are already well aware of the advantages of more flexible, child-oriented educational techniques-as well as of the pitfalls of overly standardized, overly regimented environments.
What I was hoping to glean from this book, based on its title, was some useful suggestions for enhancing my traditionally schooled children's learning. But most of Dobson's suggestions are either too conceptual and vague to be useful or too time-consuming to sound feasible in a family where the adults are off following their own pursuits while the children are at school.
Dobson needs to do some research into the lives of families whose children attend school before she attempts to show us how to do things better. Like a missionary in a far-flung locale, she is bound to find that the natives respond better to preachers who understand the indigenous lifestyle. Kristin Gehring
A story of adolescence for every parent to remember Sleepaway School: Stories from a Boy's Life, by Lee Stringer, Seven Stories Press, 2004, $21.95.
Lee Stringer first burst into public attention six years ago with his searing memoir about homelessness, drug addiction and writing in Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street. The second installation of his life journey, Sleepaway School: Stories from a Boy's Life, brings readers back to his childhood, focusing largely on his three-year stint at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, a school for at-risk boys.
The book opens with Stringer and his older brother Wayne, who are African American, living on welfare in affluent and largely white Mamaroneck, N.Y. Elizabeth Treadwell, their mother, raises the boys after retrieving them from years of foster care: Their father is almost completely absent from their lives.
Prone to violent outbursts, Lee, born Caverly, is sent to the "sleepaway school" of the book's title at age 11 after assaulting a classmate without provocation. In pithy chapters, Stringer chronicles his efforts to forge family type relationships at his home away from home.
It is an often-bumpy ride. Encountering puberty and racial prejudice, Stringer struggles mightily to gain the acceptance of his peers, many of whom have been sent to the school by their parents, rather than the state.
His staccato writing style and unflinching descriptions of the characters' foibles, including his own, pull the reader with him on his path to adulthood-a treacherous road but one that also contains moments of surprising tenderness and humor.
By the book's end, Stringer has gained mastery over his temper and reached some measure of manhood. His desire to succeed helps him, as do his mother's weekly visits, which demonstrate that a parent's love and support do not end when a child stops living at home. The emotional connections he develops with some of the other boys and staff members move him forward, too.
Yet Sleepaway School is far from a saccharin tale of overcome obstacles, complete with a neat and happy ending. An often poignant book, it reminds readers just how painfully awkward and occasionally sublime any adolescence can be, let alone the one the author endured. Parents of teenagers are likely to finish Sleepaway School reliving their own adolescent difficulties and being more aware of the importance of maintaining open communication with their children. Jeff Kelly Lowenstein