The world can be a difficult place for stepparents. On one hand, stepparents so often step into a family in transition and help build a foundation for stability and family cohesion. On the other, California law frequently treats them with no explicit rights until after their current relationship has dissolved. The courtroom regularly looks upon them with suspicion, as if stepparents are strangers trying to nefariously wiggle their way in, only to pounce and destroy the relationships between biological parents and their children.
In reality, outside the sometimes indifferent courtroom, stepparents are a vital part of the modern family structure. The US Census states that 50% of the 60 million children in the United States under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. Certainly, there are countless instances wherein children grow near to exclusively with one biological parent and one stepparent, while the second biological parent is not in the picture. It can hardly be a surprise that in some of these households, children call their stepmothers “Mom” and stepfathers “Dad.” How should our culture respond to this? Should we keep the title of mom and dad as exclusive titles only for biological parents, or should we acknowledge the changing shape of families and allow children to determine what they call their parent figures?
It is without a doubt that some parents seek to manipulate their children for the purpose of alienating a former partner who they do not believe should have a role in the child’s life. Family court is rife with these cases, and they are undoubtedly damaging to the children caught in the middle. While court is often unavoidable, what of instances where the child, of their own volition and borne of no malice, decide they want to call a stepparent Mom or Dad? Is this an appropriate time for court intervention?
While this issue has no firm answer in the California Family Code, a New Jersey judge recently decided that, where there is no showing of coercion or alienation and the child is mature enough to make the decision, it is up to the child to decide what to call his or her stepparent. They stated, “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.” B.S. v. T.S. (2015). DOCKET NO. FM-15-209-11-N. Further, the court tied the right of a child to refer to a step parent as mom or dad to the freedom of speech.
Perhaps this does not seem like an earth-shattering decision, however, the reader would be surprised to learn that there is no parallel case law in California. In fact, it is not uncommon for a California family law judge to make court orders explicitly forbidding a child from calling a stepparent by the moniker of “mom” or “dad”. Many have asked in whose interest this kind of order serves. Are such orders even enforceable? It would appear that New Jersey is “stepping” out in front but, in all likelihood, for the sake of the children of blended families, it will only be a matter of time before other states like California have a rule like this on the books.