To those who are familiar with fairy tales, the words wicked and stepmother are closely associated. Cinderella, Snow White, and certain other fictional heroines suffered at the hands of their stepmothers. "Wicked stepfather" is not as fearful a combination, though admirers of Hamlet might think otherwise.
Demographic predictions indicate that roughly one-third of all children in the United States will spend part of their childhood with a stepparent. Approximately 11% of all American children are living with a stepparent at any one time, in most cases a stepfather. Because it is still unusual for fathers to retain custody of minor children after a divorce, less than 1% of children in married-coupled family households are living with a stepmother (Kantrowitz & Wingert, 1990; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).
Hopefully, only a small fraction of stepparents turn out to be "wicked," but it would be overly optimistic to assume that the relationships between children and their stepparents are always congenial. The quality of these relationships varies with the ages and genders of both the child and the stepparent. Interactions between stepparents and stepchildren appear to be most positive if they are friendly but not intense and when the stepparent and stepchild are of the same sex. Because most stepparents are men, the implication is that conflict is more common between stepfathers and stepdaughters. This appears to be particularly true when the stepdaughter is an adolescent. Regardless of their age or sex, children who are temperamental and have greater difficulty coping with change are more apt to experience discordant relations with their stepparents (Allison & Furstenberg, 1989; Hetherington, Cox, &Cox, 1985; Vuchinich, Hetherington, Vuchinich, & Clingempeel, 1991).
The rise in the numbers of children being born out of wedlock has led to an increase in the number of foster homes and adoptive parents. In 1995,
258,000 American children under age 18 lived in foster homes. Forty-four percent of these children were boys, 56% were girls, 52% were black, 34% were white, and 13% were Hispanic (Saluter, 1996). Of particular concern are children who are shuffled in and out of foster homes and provided with little opportunity to establish roots and develop a stable, socially acceptable personal identity.
Adopted children presumably have a better chance than foster children, perhaps because adults who adopt children are more likely really to want them and are willing to make preparations and concessions for them. Adoptive parents usually come in couples, but it is possible for a single parent— typically a woman—to adopt a child. In addition, gay or lesbian couples may adopt and rear their own or someone else's natural children. The concern on the part of some critics that children reared in homosexual households experience sexual-identity problems does not appear to be supported by research evidence (Flaks, Ficher, Masterpasqua, & Joseph, 1995; Patterson, 1995). Furthermore, Flaks et al. (1995) found that lesbian mothers had greater awareness of parenting skills than heterosexual mothers.
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