Stereotypes About Stepfamilies

Contact with stereotyped groups reduces stereotypes (Leyens, Yzerbyt, & Schadron, 1994). The growing numbers of stepfamilies make it unlikely that people do not know someone who lives in a stepfamily, is a stepparent, or stepchild. In general, this greater familiarity likely has had the net effect of reducing the view of stepfamilies as deviant, although this widespread familiarity also means that someone knows a horrible stepfamily example that reinforces this negative perception. Although the approval of stepfamilies has not been studied in the USA, a fairly recent study of how Americans perceive diverse family forms (e.g., single parent families) conducted by the Pew Center (Morin, 2011), found that about one-third rejected diverse families as poor environments for children (and adults), one-third tolerated diverse families but had concerns about them, and one-third completely accepted diverse families and had no concerns about them. Our guess is that these percentages also generally reflect how people think about stepfamilies as deviant or benign environments.

As a test of your ability to recognize cultural views of stepfamilies, put a check next to the following descriptors that you think were written about stepfamilies, and an X in front of those that were given as descriptors of nuclear families.

  • ? 1. Secure, stable, happy, moral, normal
  • ? 2. Complex negotiations, sacrifice, understanding, extra opportunity,


? 3. Stability, lifelong relationships, strong sense ofbelonging, well-defined


? 4. Conflicts, anger, confusion, children acting out, insecurities,


? 5. Happy, legitimate, a real family, normal, functional, structured, closely


? 6. Dysfunctional, wicked, complex, tumultuous, rocky/shaky, child-rearing


  • ? 7. Correct, happy, well functioning, father as leader, mother as helpmate
  • ? 8. Together but not unified, complex, confusion or chaotic interaction,

many children

  • ? 9. Happy, several children, conservative/religious
  • ? 10. Lots of arguing, somewhat happy, lots of children, liberal, less educated
  • ? 11. Intimate, help each other, support each other, democracy
  • ? 12. Confusion, dysfunction, complex
  • ? 13. Togetherness, loving, normative, correct, compromising, good


? 14. Misunderstandings about feelings, power issues, disagreement over


  • ? 15. Tied by blood, normal, close, loving, whole, unblemished
  • ? 16. Confusion,jealousy, feeling of intrusion
  • ? 17. Security, consistent discipline, caring parents, working together, stability
  • ? 18. Openness to ambiguity, insecurity, more accepting of differences in


  • ? 19. Together, cohesive, communication, loving, caring
  • ? 20. Chaos, confused children, conflicts in all areas, divided, stressful

We asked some college students to generate descriptors that they believed to be characteristic of either stepfamilies or first marriage families. According to these American college students, the odd numbered statements above described first marriage families and the even numbered statements described stepfamilies. We are not suggesting that descriptions from students from one university represent cultural stereotypes about stepfamilies. Obviously, we would need to collect data from multiple, diverse samples before drawing conclusions, but the lists above illustrate clear differences in the stereotypes about nuclear families and stepfamilies.

We have consistently found in our studies that stepmothers and stepfathers are perceived more negatively than are mothers and fathers, respectively, and stepchildren are stereotyped more negatively than are children living with both of their parents (e.g., Bryan, Coleman, Ganong, & Bryan, 1986; Bryan, Ganong, Coleman, & Bryan, 1985; Coleman et al., 1997; Ganong, Coleman, & Mapes, 1990). However, not all studies have found that stepparents and stepchildren are stereotyped negatively (e.g., Claxton-Oldfield & Kavanagh, 1999), and some have found that individuals rely on cultural stereotypes of stepparents in some situations, but not others (Claxton-Oldfield et al., 2002). There is some evidence that stigma associated with stepfamilies is diminishing (Troilo & Coleman, 2008), perhaps because there are so many of them that many individuals are either members of extended stepfamilies or know someone who is.

Most investigations of cultural stereotypes of stepfamilies and stepfamily members have assessed perceptions only, which led us to conduct two studies designed to assess behaviors as well as perceptions (Ganong & Coleman, 1997a, 1997b). In these studies, trained actresses, one portraying a patient and one portraying a nurse giving a physical examination, were videotaped. Study participants, all female registered nurses, were given information about the patient’s marital and parental status (e.g., married mother, married childless, unmarried mother, stepmother). All of the information given to study participants, except for the patient’s marital status, was identical. In two studies using this design, but with different presenting problems of the patient, we found that nurses evaluated and perceived the patients’ health status in similar ways, regardless of family structure. However, we also asked the nurse participants to pretend they were the nurse examining this patient, and to answer questions that the videotaped patient asked (we stopped the tape after each question to allow for the nurses to respond). The nurses supplied appropriate factual information to patients regardless of family structure, but nuclear family ideology subtly affected the behaviors of even well-trained and experienced nurses, as their responses to women who they thought were in first marriage families were warmer and more elaborate than were responses to women in stepfamilies and single mother families.

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