The ‘wicked stepmother’ really is nothing more than fairytale lore, study shows

GREENVILLE, N.C. — The wicked stepmother portrayal really is stuff for fairytales after all. According to a new study, stepchildren fare just as well as peers from single parent families. And they actually do better than any half-siblings that might arrive, say scientists.

Children are introduced to the idea of the evil stepmother from some of the most famous fairytales. She is a key character in Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. But the reality is very different, and the study’s findings consign the infamous portrayal to history.

The “Cinderella effect” was first proposed by psychologists 50 years ago. It says humans are not biologically programmed to raise other people’s offspring. The phenomenon is said to increase the risk of child abuse — and even murder. However, the outlook is not as “Grimm” as once thought, the study found.

An analysis of more than 400,000 children over almost a century shows no such disadvantage.

“The idea of a stepparent, especially the stepmother, as being an agent of evil seems to be a story as old as time,” explains anthropologist Dr. Ryan Schacht, of the University of East Carolina, in a statement. “It is easy to sell the Cinderella effect’s result because we have been told these stories about the problems that stepfamilies experience for hundreds of years. We are not denying that some stepchildren suffer. However, if we truly believe it is the stepparent that is the source of negative outcomes for a stepchild, then we need to compare similar environments and experiences. A child that hasn’t lost a parent through death or divorce hasn’t experienced the same trauma that a stepchild has; comparing those two experiences and blaming the stepparent for diverging outcomes isn’t a fair comparison.”

Stepparents ‘investing in their stepchildren’ help achieve household stability

According to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 3.9 million children are living in homes with a stepparent.

Blame for the hardship associated with parental loss has previously been through an “apples-to-oranges comparison,” explains Schacht.

Specifically, the long-term outcomes of children who have suffered was compared to those from stable households. When Schacht and colleagues looked at stepchildren and other children who also have lost a parent, they found no difference. In particular, the introduction of stepparents did not increase child mortality.

The study was based on stepchildren whose parents remarried after the death of a spouse and those whose parents did not remarry. It found parental mortality has a negative effect on children under 18 years old, especially for infants losing a mother. Children whose parents remarried did not suffer a mortality rate any greater than those whose parrents stayed single.

Stepchildren also received a protective effect when a half-sibling was introduced to their new family.

“The metrics of what makes a family successful – household stability, relationship stability and economic stability – are achieved by stepparents investing in their stepchildren to make that a reality,” says Schacht. “Coming in with an antagonistic approach doesn’t make sense if stepparents want their relationship to succeed.”

The researchers used a data set of children from Utah from 1847 to 1940. It provided an opportunity to analyze stepchild mortality rates in families during a natural fertility period when they were larger in size. Most stepfamilies were also formed due to the death of a parent rather than divorce.

Children who have suffered parental loss have more in common with their peers from single-parent households, adds Schacht. They face many of the same educational, economic and health care disparities.

Schacht hopes the study, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, will boost public funding for such families.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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