When a divorced parent decides to remarry, what is the best way to teach their children to address the new step-parent?
If the children’s other parent is still living and involved in their lives, then the safest and most respectful approach is to teach your children to call the step-parent by their first name.
I deal with this sometimes, when a parent is hurt by their ex instructing their children to call a step-parent Mom or Dad – as if to erase their biological mother or father. And it’s understandable why they would feel this way!
When asked, “Why are you allowing our kid to call the other parent Dad or Mom, and it’s so hurtful to me,” I get so many interesting responses. Mostly, it’s excuses. Things like, “Oh well the kids started doing it on their own.” Or, “we couldn’t think of a proper name, so it’s not actually Mommy, it’s Meemaw or Mama J.”
Unless somebody loses a parent at a very young age, and the other parent no longer exists on the earth, it’s really inappropriate to call their step-parent Mom or Dad. While we all want our children to have respect for adults, and many still believe in calling people Mr., Ms. or Mrs., and not be their first name, the most appropriate place to call an adult by their first name as a way to recognize the intimacy of the relationship is a step-parent.
When people say they think it’s inappropriate or disrespectful to call this adult by their first name, I just don’t see it.
First-naming a step-parent shows intimacy. Familiarity. They live together, spend time together, and this person is a caregiver to some degree.
But they are not their mother or father.
When we allow, encourage, support or do not speak up when a child calls a step-parent mother or father, we are devaluing the other parent and minimizing their role in a child’s life.
While a stepparent can be an incredible addition to a child’s life, adding to the love that a child grows up surrounded by, they can’t replace Mom or Dad. Every parent goes through a moment when there is a stepparent involved, when they feel a little displaced. Those insecurities and anxieties are normal!
But when the other parent tells their child to refer to a step-parent as Mom or Dad, they’re just adding salt into the wound of the other parent.
I fully believe there are times when families do this deliberately, as a way to hurt the other parent. It’s hard to say, “Oh yes, I want to coparent with you, but I’m taking one of the most special important bonds that you have as a parent and child, identifying who you are to them and the relationship you have with them, and undermining, changing, devaluing it.”
That does not send a message of serious commitment to working with the other parent! And it sure doesn’t send a message of respect for the other parent’s parental role in their children’s lives.
Quite the opposite. Allowing this sends a message that at the least, you are interested in hurting the other parent and at worst, you want to replace them or erase them from the family story.
I’ve seen parents who think they can just bring in someone new and eliminate the other parent. When a biological parent or parent of origin has issues or problems, a stepparent may very well be a stronger caregiver. But even in those instances, it still doesn’t justify erasing the original parent.
Doing so is actually very detrimental. Kids innately want love and approval and attention from their parents. Anything extra is wonderful! But they need a meaningful relationship with their biological parent first and foremost.
It’s difficult, of course, to do this when a parent has alcohol abuse disorder or similar situations, but there are measures to put in place to keep a child safe. Whenever possible, they need to connect with their parent. Even if you try to erase them, they’re not erased for the kid.
They’re just not.
Bottom line, when you’re welcoming a step-parent to the mix, opt for first-name basis for your children. I have dealt with the court on this subject many times over, and when the court or guardian ad-litem find out that a parent has told their kids to call the stepparent Mom or Dad, alarm bells ring.
Court personnel assume the parent in question is very purposefully trying to erase the natural parent, and they do not respond well. They often encourage making a change to call the step-parent by their first name. And if you resist, it becomes part of their concern that you’re doing things to potentially alienate the kid from their natural parent.
Why put yourself in that position?
Doing so puts the child in the middle of their parents, which can negatively impact their future and fill them with guilt and shame. If for no other reason, do what’s best for your child – they’re making up a story about who they are and both of their parents play starring roles in that foundational story.