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Home / Recent News / Just a fairy story: step-parents are not always evil

Just a fairy story: step-parents are not always evil

New research suggests that the myth of the “evil” stepparent treating the stepchildren different that bio-kids is largely unfounded. Professionals often have a skewed perspective and see only the worst situations. I’ve found that most of these similar myths are unfounded and, for example, most foster parents are truly loving and appropriate, step-parents love all their kids, and that most adoptions are wonderfully successful.

Contrary to common belief, parents do not generally treat their stepchildren less favourably than their own. Until now, many researchers believed in the so-called “Cinderella effect.” It states that it is biologically inevitable that parents care less for stepchildren because they do not spread their genes. However, researchers have discovered an important exception. If there is a reasonable chance of increasing wealth in the parents’ environment then no difference is made between one’s own children and stepchildren. Thus, parental care depends on more than just the biological relationship.

This is the result of a study published by Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research researcher Kai Willführ together with Alain Gagnon from the University of Montreal in the scientific journal Biodemography and Social Biology. “We are now able to prove that the Cinderella effect is not an inevitable reflex of stepparents,” says Kai Willführ. The scientists investigated if and how strongly parents neglected their stepchildren by looking at the mortality of children in historic patchwork families from the 17th to 19th century. They compared the Krummhörn region of East Frisia (Germany), which was a densely populated area with little space for demographic development, and the growing Canadian settlements in Québec. For both areas they calculated how the children’s chances of survival changed when a stepmother moved in.

The conclusions showed that only in Krummhörn, which offered fewer opportunities for demographic growth, the stepmother had a negative influence. In Krummhörn children from a father’s first marriage died more often before the age of 15 if a stepmother moved in. This effect was not seen in Québec, even though the tragedy of Aurore Gagnon, a young girl who died from wounds inflicted by her stepmother and her father in 1920, is still fresh in Quebec’s collective memory . The “Cinderella effect,” therefore, does not inevitably seem to occur. The stepmothers must have treated their children in East Frisia and Canada completely differently.

The extent of this effect is striking: if a Krummhörn girl lost her mother early, the likelihood of her dying before the age of 15 more than doubled compared to a girl whose mother did not die. If the father remarried and the stepmother joined the family, mortality doubled again. Thus, the arrival of a stepmother affected the girls in East Frisia as much as the death of their own mother. In Québec, however, the risk of dying young barely changed when the new mother moved in.

“The stepmothers in Québec seemed to understand that the offspring from their husband’s first marriage were not competition for their own children with their new husband,” says researcher Kai Willführ. “Families in Quebec during this time were comparatively huge,” explained Professor Alain Gagnon. “French-Canadian families in the 17th to 19th centuries grew to fill the empty land, and more hands meant greater food security or even wealth. Children from a previous marriage could often help the step-parent care and educate their younger brothers and sisters.” On the contrary, according to the “Cinderella effect”, stepparents would always consider “foreign” children to be competitors to their own children and could thus neglect them.

Care for children is strategy

But that only happened in Krummhörn, where siblings competed for basic needs. “We assume that stepmothers neglected, exploited or even abused the children from their husband’s first marriage,” says socio-biologist Willführ. The fact that this only happened in East Frisia shows that the context in which patchwork families are living – whether there is room for economic development or not – strongly influences how parents allocate their affection to their own children and stepchildren. “The difference is due to the scarcity of resources. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that we could talk about a difference between the New World and the Old, between Europe and North America,” demographer Gagnon said. “Our popular culture is constantly looking for Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother, but cases such as reported in the movie “Little Aurore’s Tragedy” here in Quebec were the exception rather than the rule.” Although the scientists used historic data, their results have fundamentally challenged the veracity of the “Cinderella effect. “It is therefore also true today, that stepparents are not always evil,” says researcher Kai Willführ.

About Dr. John Carosso

Dr. Carosso’s experience in the mental health field dates back to over twenty-five years in a number of capacities including as a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and School Psychologist. He has worked in private, school-based, inpatient, residential, and in-home settings. His specialization is in the evaluation, assessment, and treatment of children and teenagers and, in that regard, he has conducted literally tens of thousands of evaluations with children, and families, of all walks of life.

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