So, first things first; I am a step-dad. I have known the boys (ages 6 and 8 - lets call them Tim and Robert, respectively) for about 18 months now, and they do look up to me as a father figure (calling me dad, listening and following my advice - e.g. "Listen and think", etc.) and I have been told by my partner (their mother) that she sees the way they look up to me.

However, I am not exactly certain of their history, beyond the knowledge that at least one previous partner (not sure if it was their actual father or not) was very abusive. Again, exactly how, I'm not certain, but from what I have been told, I believe it was primarily physical - I have been told that their mother was often placing herself between him and the boys.

That said, I don't know what, or even if that has an effect on the boys, primarily Tim. He has told me about their "bad dad", but not much more than a name and maybe one or two enjoyable activities (like playing roly-polys on the trampoline). What I do know is that he is a victim of bullying, but again I'm not sure the extent - he may simply have a bully at school, or he may have a dysfunctional friendship circle of "bully" friends that occasionally pick on each other.

I am working on understanding all of this better, but that will take time; especially to do with the previous partner, as that will require revisiting some very distressing memories on behalf of their mother (we have spoken about therapy, and she is slowly making efforts to do so).

What I do know for certain however, is that Tim is bullying Robert. Tim is very much being the "alpha" in their relationship. Tim leads, and Robert must follow. If anything goes wrong, or they are caught out, Tim immediately tries to blame it on Robert. They both have a fear of being disciplined, especially physically (probably due to their history), so I make the effort to talk to them, help them understand the rules, help them think about what they should be doing, like telling the truth, not taking things that don't belong to them, being fair, listening and being nice to each other, etc.

I know that the boys listen to me; I come home some days, and they are being rascals, not listening to their mother, procrastinating on their chores, doing what they want and disregarding the rules. So I "put my foot down" by firmly reminding them of what they have been asked to do, point out their misbehavior, and stay on "overwatch" to make sure they do as they have been asked. Depending on how upset I get, I try and come back afterwards to talk to them calmly about what upset me and their mother, to again try to help them understand what they did wrong. From this, I have seen a change in their behavior around me.

What I am concerned about is the unintended side effect of the "adult male role model" they have had to deal with before, and the absence of one in the year or so between the old partner and myself, and in particular the "instinctual behavior" of Tim. It resurfaces around new people; whenever my parents take care of them, he reverts back to taking things that don't belong to him, he tests the boundaries of "who is in charge" by doing what he wants, not listening, and any time that "blame" is placed, it's automatically Robert's fault, so that Tim doesn't get the consequences.

Tim is very smart, and at the moment, he uses his intelligence to do the wrong thing - sneak around, find where things are and take them, and even to figure out locks and passcodes to get to what he wants. So I personally have a mild doubt whether his "good behavior" around me is just for show, or if he simply associates the "good behavior" lessons to me specifically, and only remembers them when he thinks of me/I am around.

So what can I do to make the lessons stick better with Tim (beyond just sticking at it), and how can I teach him about his behavior towards Robert is unacceptable?

2 Answers 2


Bullying trickles down. If this is how your youngest is treated in school, then this is both the norm behaviour that he'll pick up, and he will have an inclination to perpetuate the bullying, so as to not be on the bottom rung of the ladder himself.

Obviously, you need to do what you need to do to make sure your oldest is ok. I'd say it's more important to communicate in his presence that the behaviour is not ok, than to work one on one with the bully. But in working with the bully, keep in mind that he is also the victim in another context. If no adults are intervening when he's treated this way at school, but he gets told off for doing the same to someone else, then surely he will have good reason to feel unjustly treated by the adult community (and not just by the school yard bullies).

Since he is both a bully and a victim, I think the best way to have a conversation about bullying is to focus on how others should be treating him, rather than on how he should be treating his brother. That caters to his need to be strengthened in his rights not to be bullied at school, while at the same time packaging the bullying talk in a format he'll be more receptible to.

As regards the other part of your question, the sneakiness and cracking of pass codes, I suppose that may not be anything more than age appropriate shenanigans, so I'm not saying there must have been anything wrong with your current approach. What I'd throw in is that if this overwatch, as you describe it, is the driver of the good behaviour, then this is what you could reasonably expect when you're not around. If the incentive is, in very general terms, "behave well or there will be a consequence", then getting away with misbehaviour, to those who can, is a logical choice. The problem is framed so that the obvious best outcome would be if they could do what they want and avoid the consequence. If the incentive is instead "if you behave well, that'd make me very happy" you've rigged the game in favour of honesty. There is no longer anything to beat. If the reward is they get to see they've made you proud or glad, and they know it's because they've deceived you, that's not as rewarding a feeling as avoiding a punishment. And making you happy is genuinely meaningful to them.

  • The last part of this answer...I might not be understanding it correctly but it sounds like you are saying that a parent’s happiness is the reward for good behavior. Sure, but how is that going to help when their not around? Rewards/punishments aren’t effective at that age (6&8) unless they are immediate. Also, if the reward is happiness, then the “consequence” is...unhappiness? Anger? Disappointment? I don’t think teaching children they are responsible for others’ moods is a good lesson. We are each responsible for our own emotions.
    – Jax
    Feb 4, 2021 at 0:31
  • @Jax: I may not have phrased it very clearly; what I was aiming at was that children, or indeed humans at large, do not generally have an inclination to obey, but we do have an inclination to cooperate. Saying "You must" sounds stronger than "I would appreciate if", so in problematic cases we might think we need to use the former, but the latter provides meaning, and is thus more likely to be complied with. It is hard to understand why we should do something "we must", but once we get that we're just requested to cooperate we more easily get on board. Cooperating makes inherent sense.
    – user36162
    Feb 4, 2021 at 8:55
  • So I am not at all thinking of some kind of psychological manipulation here; just the very basic observation that cooperation fosters appreciation and happiness. We all do things to please other people routinely, because we genuinely enjoy doing it. As for when that specific adult is not around, I think teaching the virtue of cooperation translates more easily into cooperating with others, than how avoiding the watchman should translate into treating all others as potential watchmen.
    – user36162
    Feb 4, 2021 at 8:58
  • It's not obvious to me that whenever there's a positive effect of an outcome, the children will infer a negative effect of the opposite outcome. If I've cooked something and my kids eat a lot of it, I can genuinely say I'm glad they liked it. It doesn't follow that I would be disappointed or unhappy if they didn't. They're absolutely entitled to. There would just be the absence of that extra positive.
    – user36162
    Feb 5, 2021 at 21:44

My approach to this would be "all humans have the same rights". So it is not okay to bully, but also it is not okay to be bullied.

It is a complex thing, but our world should be based upon it. The main principle is simple (All have the same rights + My rights end, where others begin) but the implementation is tricky, especially if others do not behave along this rules.

In the second part (taking things) it is a question of trust. Explain trust as something of value, which the children do not want to loose. Explain how trust works in a family (including the grandparents) and what they win with it. To take things, will destroy this trust and make the live very complicated. Trust works in both directions, because if you cheat, you will be frightened about a revenge. If the child can not trust the parent/sibling/other people, live will be very difficult.

Maybe you want to take in laws and how they base upon the "rights" and how they build the base for "trust" (for example contracts).

In conclusion the children should have predictable reactions of you. Not to trick you, but to trust you as a stable component of their live.

(And if they are smart, and ask, why you seem to have more rights than them, you should not explain it with the "power" concept, but with some of "more experience". Like one would trust an expert at the field more, even if of the same age rhan oneself. In reverse conclusion you may need to follow the childrens expert knowledge in some cases too...)

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