A Step-Dad's Role

Explaining to a child that a live-in stepfather isn't the same as a birth parent.
father and son talking

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Q: I have a 5-year-old son who sees his father about once a year, if that, but we have a good relationship with the rest of his father's family. His grandfather and stepgrandmother babysat while I was in night classes during college. She was the matron of honor at my wedding and we had our reception at their house. Although my husband has been around since my son was an infant (we married when he was about fifteen months old), at what age should I explain the difference between his dad and his father? He calls my husband daddy and he can point out his father in pictures. I think that he's catching on to the fact that I'm mommy and mother, but that daddy and father are two different people.

A: I think in your situation what might be helpful is for your family and your son to talk about being a multi-parent family, rather than trying to explain the differences between his daddy and father. You're probably feeling pressure (as we all do) from our societal norms that say there is one mother and one father in each family. If there are more, then we somehow have to explain it. It's actually more common now for children to have more than two parents. Your son is connected to three parents in very important ways and all three relationships are and will continue to be important to him throughout his life. For a young child, it's helpful to have a different name for each parent, which it sounds like he does.

He doesn't have much physical time with his birth father. Does he talk with him on the phone? Can you nurture that relationship to increase the contact? Can your relationship with his parents be used to facilitate more contact with his father? This is not to take away from his daddy or compete with him, but to add in more connection time with his father. What we've seen with children who had a father disengage from them is that later in life even with a wonderful stepparent they seek out a relationship with their other parent and sometimes have to process through some abandonment issues. There is much less chance of this happening if a connection can be maintained with his father as he grows.

I would talk about his father as his "parent when you were born" (young children also understand and can use the term "birth parent" when explained this way). Daddy became his "parent" when he married you. So he has three parents. Because he was so young when you remarried and has always known his daddy as a parent that I don't think it's necessary to try to explain the term "parent" versus "stepparent." Sounds like your son has all the benefits of a loving family in you and his daddy and his connections to extended family members. Increasing time with his father will only add to his feelings of being loved and valued.

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