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soft power and parenting

Lessons in Soft Power From a Pseudo-Parent

Policymakers might want to take a page from the step-parenting handbook.

Pictures: Sai De Silva

When my partner and I started to become serious and commit long term, I began to play a role in his daughter’s life. Having spent my 20s steeped in textbooks and bourbon rather than bibs and breast milk, it was a change. Fortunately, in addition to possessing Midwestern maternal nature, I had also spent the last three years studying soft power and policy. As it turns out, both were equally useful in my new role as pseudo-parent.*


This was the first thing I noticed as I moved into my new house and family. The parenting style was something completely different than I had been raised with or observed in the parenting styles of my friends and family. Bedtimes were different, as were rules about TV content. Recycling and composting were required and the toilet paper had to have the loose end over the top.  

No matter how amicable a divorce may be, when parents decide to split, the family is disrupted. When a new person enters that family, it is important to minimize additional disruption. As the new gal, I had a responsibility to understand and assimilate. 

But it’s not all one-way. A friend of mine recently confided in me that gum-chewing was one of the biggest cultural changes she demanded when she moved in with her partner and his children. “It drives me to violence,” she confessed, though, for her new family, a stick of gum was a regular and enjoyable activity. Rather than ban the practice outright, they all agreed to compromise by limiting the allowed areas and frequency of gum chewing.

Becoming a pseudo-parent means creating a relationship with a new child (or children), your partner, and yes, your partner’s ex-partner. These adult relationships will require diplomatic talks, early and often.

We see this expectation of one-way assimilation in the US quite a bit. There’s a wave of nationalist thought that newcomers must fully assimilate, even give up their long-standing and deeply treasured customs, in order to “talk, act, or be” American. As the new addition, I’ve had to first learn the customs of a new family. That doesn’t mean my new family hasn’t been willing or able to change or accommodate me in certain areas. Understanding the advantages that immigrants bring to the nation, it’s moral and wise to help accommodate these newcomers and uphold our values as a welcoming refuge for those seeking the American life; to lift our lamps beside the golden door. 


“You’re not my real mom/dad!” is a phrase that every pseudo-parent will inevitably hear and be hurt by — because it’s true. Biological or legal parents have more inherent authority than non-parents. But lack of authority does not equate to lack of influence. In governments and the international community, there are positions of assigned authority, and then there are positions of influence – both uniquely powerful. As a result of that relative lack of authority, hard power tools, typically readily available for those in assigned positions of authority, are not as accessible to us pseudo-parents. 

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be as, if not more effective, to bring about favorable outcomes using soft power techniques. In fact, science backs this up – researcher John Freedman demonstrated such a concept in his mid-1960s experiments with young children and robots. In the experiment, Freedman demonstrated the power and effectiveness of using soft power influence, over the direct threat of punishment, to change actors’ behaviors long-term.  This tip isn’t just helpful for step-parents, but it’s one I likely would not have learned if I had the simpler tools of hard power parenting – threatening to punish or reward certain behavior.  

We see this more in more with non-state actors – major corporations, NGOs or other transnational groups have influence without defined authority. As globalization continues and even accelerates, the power of non-state influencers will only continue to grow. If the US wants to remain in power, we must understand which tools of soft power and influence in addition to hard power and authority. 


Becoming a pseudo-parent means creating a relationship with a new child (or children), your partner, and yes, your partner’s ex-partner. These adult relationships will require diplomatic talks, early and often.  At the onset of such diplomatic negotiations, it is imperative to set the desired end-state or mutual goal for all parties. Usually, with merged families, this end-state is a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment for the children and peaceful relationship among the adults. 

One of the initial and ongoing negotiations should address the role of the new pseudo-parent. Will the new adults in the family be given the authority to conduct school pick-up? Dispense punishments or rewards? Give puberty or sexual guidance? Cut hair or pierce ears? Discussing and agreeing on roles and responsibilities of the pseudo parent early on gives all parties confidence and trust to parent together.

Diplomatic talks are messy, and ongoing, as the current Iranian deal has made clear. Open and honest communication is required, but trust is the foundation of any diplomatic agreement. In parenting and in policy, the level of trust may vary depending on the situation – for example, our agreements with England require much less verification than those with Iran. In a similar vein, a contentious divorce where one or more parties have behaved questionably may require more formal agreements. In both cases, without a baseline level of trust in the judgment, capabilities, and intent of all parties, talks will quickly crumble. 

Pseudo-parenting comes with layers of unique problems, each with multiple points for missteps. It is messy and ever-evolving. It’s often hard to know how your actions are impacting the new little humans with whom you’re building relationships and frustrating to keep the diplomatic channels open. So it makes sense that understanding the applications and tools of soft power, a similarly messy and evolving concept, can help all family actors achieve peace and growth. Perhaps, one day, the policymakers could even take a page from the step-parenting handbook.

*I use the term pseudo-parent because “step-mom” doesn’t work as my partner and I do not intend to get married and “bonus mom” doesn’t quite seem to accurately describe the nuances of the role.

Maggie Seymour


Maggie Seymour is an Illinois native with a BA from Loyola University Chicago in Political Science, an MA in Military History from Norwich University, an MA in Journalism from Mizzou University, and a PhD in International Relations from Old Dominion University. Her dissertation focused on the use of hard power and soft power in counterterrorism. She served 10 years as an active duty intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. During that time she deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve. She is an avid ultra runner and writes most of her pieces while logging her miles. She is currently serving in the Marine Corps Reserve and is a Trainor Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


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