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Can Kids Call Stepparent “Mom” or Dad”?

parent walking hand in hand with child

What’s in a name? If you’re in a blended family, the question of what the kids should call their stepparents can be a thorny one.

In the iconic 70s television series, “The Brady Bunch,” the kids each called their respective stepparent “Mom” or “Dad.” But in real life, a lot of parents would take major exception to having this title usurped by a stepparent - no matter how close the relationship.

For some stepparents, it may feel natural for a child you love and are so actively involved in raising to call you “mom,” “dad,” or some variation. That’s especially true with younger kids, particularly if their other biological parent isn’t as much of a presence as you.

While this “name game” may seem sort of insignificant in the grand scheme of things, the truth of the matter is that labels like these are very personal and tend to have strong emotional significance. Our Somerset divorce lawyers know that when there is disagreement between households about how it should be handled, it can become a major point of contention between co-parents and stepparents alike.

One such case out of New Jersey offers some guidance into how Family Courts approach this issue. It was B.S. v. T.S., a non-published (non-precedential) opinion, but one that nonetheless can be instructive in future cases.

In this case, the divorced parents shared joint custody of their 8-year-old son, with the father having primary residential custody and the mother regularly exercising parenting time. Both were fit parents, actively involved, and playing a positive role in their son’s life.

Post-divorce, the father got involved in a long-term relationship with another woman – a mom with residential custody of her own three kids from a previous marriage. They dated for several years before moving in together with all their children. At the time of the 2015 court case, the pair were engaged, and there was no dispute that this was a loving, stable, healthy relationship.

Plaintiff’s son developed a close relationship with his soon-to-be-stepmother as well as her three kids. He always called his dad “Dad” and his mom “Mom.” Historically, he referred to his soon-to-be-stepmom by her first name, but had started to call her “Mom” when he was at his dad’s house - consistent with how the other kids addressed her. The father insisted this all came about naturally and with no prompting.

However, the child’s mother was hurt by this, blamed the dad/new stepmother for allowing/encouraging it, and felt it infringed on the significance of her relationship with her son. Nobody but herself, she said, should be called “Mom” by her own son. She also sought to limit the amount of influence the stepmom had on important decisions regarding her child.

The Court interviewed the child in camera (privately in the judge’s chambers) as part of the proceedings. That interview reflected a great relationship with both parents, a clear understanding of who his actual mother and father were, affection for his new stepmom, and affirmation that calling his stepmother “Mom” sometimes and by her first name other times was his own inclination. There was no evidence he was compelled, coerced, programmed, or instructed to call his stepmother “mom” or that doing so was meant to disrespect or distance himself from his mom.

The Court ruled that while children of divorce may have little control over the decisions made on his/her behalf, they should have the right to call their stepparent “mom” or “dad” if the stepparent is willing to be called that. This assumes the decision is entirely voluntary and the child is mature enough to draw a distinction between their actual parent and their stepparent without confusion. Neither parent can force the child to do so - or forbid the child to do so.

Exceptions to this may exist in cases where the child is still an infant or toddler or where the stepparent attempts to train/require the child to call them by such a name when they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

A final point the Court made in that case was that if a child chooses to call a stepparent “mom” or “dad,” that doesn’t mean the stepparent is, in fact, a parent. They are not entitled to the same rights and do not share the same responsibilities as the child’s actual parents. All major parenting decisions should be made only by the parents, though stepparents may assist/counsel their partner. They can also help in whatever way will have an ongoing, positive role in the child’s life and well-being.

If you have questions or concerns about how your child addresses their stepparent or the role the stepparent is playing in your child’s life, our New Jersey child custody attorneys can help.

Contact our New Jersey family law attorneys by calling (732) 810-0034 or visiting us online.

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