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Stepfather Not Comfortable
Being Called by his First Name

QUESTION: My husband wants my six-year-old daughter to address him as "Stepfather" rather than by his first name. She's not comfortable calling him "Dad." He doesn't press the issue but plans to casually remind her every time she calls his name. I've been a stepchild and I disagree. I believe in letting it occur naturally, but he has a problem with a child calling an adult by first name. I've explained that that rule doesn't apply in stepfamilies, but he is adamant.

ANSWER: You and your husband may both be right. But now you must find a way to negotiate to resolve your problem in a way that respects both of your needs as well as your daughter's best interest.

Your instincts about letting things evolve naturally in a blended family hold true in research on stepfamilies. It is important to the family's development that affection not be pushed on children before trust and friendship are established. However, it is not clear that calling your husband "stepfather" conjures inappropriate affection or formality for your daughter. Her experience may or may not parallel your own childhood. Check to see what is true for her, before assumptions dominate your conclusions.

How does your daughter feel about calling your spouse "stepfather"? How do you feel in private, and in public? Is there a difference for you at home or elsewhere, as one thing to consider is that addressing parents in this way also opens the door to your private life to anyone in earshot. Privacy about family issues (divorce, adoption, etc.) may or may not be an issue for any of you. It may be illuminating to find out how your daughter feels about this. Your husband's experience of disrespect in being called by his first name must also be considered. His desire to have your daughter call him by his role may also be an expression of feeling somewhat excluded in the family.

Perhaps there is some other name your husband would be comfortable with that not only communicates respect (by not addressing him by first name), but also reflects his place in the family in a way that simultaneously matches the level of affection your daughter feels for him. Just as some grandmothers are called "Nana", perhaps "Pop" or "Pops" would work emotionally for everyone in the family. Try things out for a week and reevaluate. This could prove an enjoyable bonding experience if handled with light heartedness and humor! And remember that affectionate names can change with your growing relationship. For example, "Mommy" and "Daddy" universally become "Mom" and "Dad" as children mature. (I am no longer "Grandmommy" but "Grandma" to my 20-month-old grandson.)

A more flexible approach will sidestep the possibility that your daughter will feel your husband is too controlling in his insistence on an overly formal designation, and allow a natural relationship to develop based on mutual respect. Perhaps your husband will recognize that respect must flow both ways for the stepchild-stepparent relationship to develop without strain and conflict.

Keep in mind that the process of discussion -- and understanding one another's experiences in the family -- is far more important than outcome of your decision-making in this situation. Family researcher Norma Walsh emphasizes healthy family processes and quality of relationships as the two primary forces of health in any family structure. Keep in mind that a strong couples' bond and a positive relationship between stepparent and stepchild are the most powerful predictors for success in stepfamilies. It is the process of discussion and empathy in both of these very critical relationships in the family that determine quality.

The good news is that your husband is suggesting his recommendations be carried out in a low-key manner. This reflects sensitivity on his part from the beginning. Your intuition may be based on your childhood or the present situation. And your positive experience of natural growth and development in a stepfamily is invaluable. Now it is time to form your own family relationships by developing your solutions in this family. Talk to other parents and stepparents. Ask them what they have done, what has worked for them and what hasn't. The Stepfamily Association of North America (1-800-735-0329) can also help put you in touch with your local chapter.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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