What To Call a Stepparent; Who Chooses?

by Annette Burns on January 30, 2016

When Mom and Dad don’t live together, and one or both parents enter a new relationship, it’s common for a child to have other significant adult figures in their lives.

What should a child call the new stepmother/ stepfather?     What if the child is calling him or her “Mom” or “Dad”?    What if the parent isn’t actually remarried but has a long-term or live-in relationship with a person, and the child is calling that person “Mom” or “Dad”?

I’m sure that most parents deal with this issue without outside help (court intervention) and deal with it somehow.  If a parent is secure in his or her role as parent and place in the child’s life, what the child calls another adult may not be as important.  But if a parent feels that his or her place in the child’s life is being usurped by the child calling someone else “Mom” or “Dad”, these issues can end up in court.

The issue is most commonly presented to the court or a parenting coordinator by an allegation that “Father is forcing the child to call his wife ‘Mom’, and the child doesn’t want to.”  Father’s response is generally that the child is not forced to, but has chosen to call stepmother “Mom” and Father sees no problem with that.   It is emphasized that the child knows who really is his birth mother and that there is no role confusion.

Parenting coordinators and the court struggle with this issue, but the prevailing view seems to be that when old enough, the child should determine what he or she will call the stepparent. A New Jersey case had to address this issue and found that an 8-year old was old enough (and mature enough) to decide on his own what to call his stepmother, and that the child had no confusion between stepmother and mom —- he simply loved them both.[1]    The court’s findings seemed to be based largely on the judge’s own interview with the child, who was 8 years old.

Not surprisingly, that New Jersey case involved the usual allegations about the child who called stepmother “Mom”.   His real mother “blames [stepmother] for permitting this situation to occur. Implicitly, she accuses both [Father] and [stepmother] for shaping, encouraging and reinforcing the child’s behavior and intruding on the sanctity of the mother/child relationship, rather than correcting the child and directing him (a) to call [stepmother] only by her first name, and (b) to call nobody “Mom” except for [Mother] herself , as the child’s one and only mother.

It’s the situations with a younger child — ages 2-6, primarily — that are the difficult cases.    The New Jersey decision was helpful in that regard, stating “it may well be inappropriate for any parent, step-parent or other individual to attempt to train or require the child to call a step-parent or any other third person “Mom” or “Dad”. Such effort can potentially mislead and confuse a child of tender years as to who his or her parents actually are.”     The difficulty in those cases is it’s possible that a child is spontaneously calling the stepparent a certain name, or maybe the child is being coached, and how is that to be resolved?    If there are other children in the household who call the stepparent “Mom” or “Dad”, it could be considered natural for this child to use the same name.     It seems clear that if a child is too immature to state his true preferences it will be much more difficult to figure out why a child is using a particular name for a stepparent and whether parental influence is taking place.

No matter what a child calls a stepparent, the New Jersey court noted that  “If a child calls a step-parent “Mom” or “Dad”, this action does not turn the step-parent into a parent. When two divorced and active parents share joint legal custody of a child, all major parenting decisions are to be made by the parents, and not by a step-parent. A step-parent, however, may assist the parent with whom he or she is partnered in helping raise a child, and in such capacity may potentially play an important, ongoing and positive role in a child’s upbringing and life.”    Even if the issue of what the stepparent is called is worked out, the issue of the step-parent’s role and authority in the child’s life can still be an issue.  Difficulties with the stepparent’s authority will be discussed in the next post.

[1] This New Jersey opinion cannot be cited as precedent in other cases.

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