The Four-Minute Stepfamily

Roger Bannister, a mild-mannered medical student and middle distance runner was the first human being to run a mile in under 4 minutes. This milestone (pardon the pun) was a very, very big deal when it happened on May 6, 1954. Every serious runner in the world had been trying to do it for almost a hundred years when Bannister crossed the finish line with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

His effort is relevant to us as step-parents because what really helped him break the 4 minute mile was an unconventional approach to the problem. Here’s what I read about him in the Harvard Business Review about him, in an article by Bill Taylor:

“The British press “constantly ran stories criticizing his ‘lone wolf’ approach,” notes John Bryant in his book 3:59.4 and urged him to adopt a more conventional regimen of training and coaching.”

You’d think that everyone would want to try the lone wolf approach, but people are very social creatures; we want more to be like everyone else than to be unlike them. When you do something that goes against the conventional wisdom, you’re sure to get some pushback from the conventional thinkers!

Bannister had to resist a great deal of pressure and I can’t guess how that felt to him at the time. Nobody gets to know in advance how posterity will judge their decisions, but of course he made the right call. The conventional regimen had never helped anyone do what he was trying to do, so he let go of it.

The modern step-family (i.e., with kids being raised by parents in different homes) has never existed as a significant social construct anywhere in the world before now. The first laws pertaining to joint physical custody of children after divorce are barely 40 years old and already there are an estimated 12 million stepfamilies in the U.S. alone. Stepfamily life is a novel situation for humanity;  it’s going to require some adaptation in order for these re-marriages to thrive and for children to flourish.

Statistics reveal that almost 3 out of 4 of step-couples persist in thinking that the tried-and-true parenting traditions still apply to this novel situation. They’ll stick stubbornly to their belief all the way until they hear the long beep of a flatlining marriage and say “we tried everything and nothing worked.” They encourage others to follow the same route or shame them for choosing an alternative path, convinced that theirs is the only sensible approach.

Back to Roger Bannister.  No sooner had he blazed a trail into the history books as the fastest mile-runner alive, someone else was able to repeat his achievement mere weeks later. Soon after, 3 runners cracked the 4-minute barrier in a single race! And on, and on. Once someone showed that it could be done and people believed it was possible, and it actually was possible. The “nay-sayers” were eating their hats!

I believe it’s the adapters of unconventional strategies who are going to cross the finish line of stepfamily satisfaction and here’s why:

•    Adopting unconventional strategies involves personal growth, which by extension benefits children and spouses, even professional or business activities.

•    Children come to respect parents and step-parents for their integrity and for how they model their values instead of simply fearing them for their power.

•    Novel parenting techniques result in compliant behaviour instead of imposed obedience. They heal the wounds of divorce instead of just working around them, allowing parents to raise resilient, confident, emotionally intelligent adults.

To my knowledge, nobody is yet studying the outcomes of unconventional thinking in step-parenting so there is no data available, but anecdotal reports on social media forums that I monitor suggest that alternative approaches are helping thousands of families to live harmonious, happy lives.

I salute the Roger Bannisters of the world, and all the courageous parents and step-parents who are open to trying something new for the sake of their own happiness and for everyone coming along behind them. Show this to your partner and be a solidly unconventional team!

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