Children know that they have one mother and one father. Step-parents are parents who are “stepping in” as parents – people who are taking on a parental role in the child’s life. Nonetheless, they are not exactly the same as parents. Biological parents and children who have lost parents to death or divorce, can be quite sensitive about who is called what. For instance, the child’s biological mother can be upset if she hears her child call her ex-husband’s new wife “Mommy” when she is the one who is called “Mommy.” Similarly, children don’t necessarily want to call anyone else “Mommy” when they are calling or have called their own mother “Mommy.” Even if their mother is no longer alive, they may want to honor her memory by refusing to call anyone else by her name.
So how should a child address a step-parent?
Avoid Using First Names
First, let’s remember that a parent or any adult who is in the parental position – that is, an adult who is living in the house with a child – is an adult who needs to be respected. The adult is not a peer of a 5 year-old child or even a 15 year-old child. The adult and child are not “buddies.” Nor is the adult only the marital partner of the parent. In fact, the adult is taking care of the child, providing for the child’s needs, modelling healthy adulthood, and providing guidance. Calling a person in this position by his or her first name diminishes the role of the caregiver. It is healthier for a child to look up to an adult. Calling the adult by some appropriate title helps to remind the child of his or her position relative to the new caregiver: the adult is a teacher/protector/in charge person who is raising the child, whereas the child is a ‘student,’ a younger person being raised. The child can call the adult by a parent-like name. It doesn’t have to be “Mommy” or “Daddy.” It can be “Ma, ” “Momsy,” “Mom” or “Pop,” “Dad,” or “Pa.” It can even be a parental term from a different language or culture. Some people are most comfortable using a parental name as a title, such as “Mommy Carol,” or “Daddy Paul.” This strategy is often more palatable for kids who are not ready to fully acknowledge and accept a new parent figure.
Discuss Possibilities with Your Child
Parents should sit down with a child and explain that the new person is not replacing a biological parent. Rather, the new person is Mommy or Daddy’s new spouse and will be looking after the children in the house alongside Mommy or Daddy. Thus the new person is a sort of parent and as such, needs to be called by a parent-type name. The children can be invited to suggest names they would be comfortable using. The new parent can also make suggestions as to what he or she would like to be called. However, it is in the new parent’s best interest NOT to be lenient and invite the kids to call him or her by a first name. The new parent will soon discover that he or she needs the status and authority of a parent when living in the house with children.