The Name Game: Dissecting the Emotional Significance of Names
Have you ever played “the name game?” The popular song (also called “The Banana Song”) written and released by Shirley Ellis in 1964 is a fun children's sing-along rhyming game that creates variations on a person's name. Blended families play a different kind of “name game.”
“Recently my stepdaughter called me ‘Mom’ for the first time and made a reference to it in her diary,” shared Sandra. “Her mother read it last weekend and it created a lot of tension in both homes. My husband’s ex-wife called crying and mad. She wants her daughter to call me by my first name only, but I’d prefer she call me “stepmom”. My stepdaughter is very much caught in the middle. What complicates matters even more is that my son has started referring to my husband as “Dad” and now we’re expecting a new baby ourselves! What labels are best?”
It’s All in a Name
The stepfamily name game is rather complicated for both adults and children. Adults who wish to be thought of in loving terms, for example, may demand that children use specific labels. A father who desperately wants his children to accept his wife may say, “I know she’s not your mother, but you can call her Mom anyway.” He hopes that if they say it, they’ll feel it. Or consider the stepfather who insisted, “Don’t introduce me as ‘Tom,’ that’s disrespectful.” He is convinced that the proper label will bring him respect. It may or may not.
Children, on the other hand, often choose labels based on their changing emotional attachments and loyalties. “Mom” is much more personal and close to the heart than is “dad’s wife or stepmom.” As relationships grow and circumstances change, so will labels. A child who returns from weekend visitation with his father may refrain from calling his stepfather "dad" for a few days. Leaving dad heightens the child’s sadness. It may also to guilt over calling someone else by that special term. After a few days when the sadness wanes, the child may again call the stepfather “Dad”. Other children may use a term of endearment for a stepparent (e.g., "Mom") unless the biological parent is physically present. Changing the label protects the biological parent’s feelings.
A child’s age can also be a factor in the name game. Very young children tend to use loving terms like "daddy" and "mommy" very quickly, but then may back away from them once they reach adolescence. The label change is indicative of the child's enhanced sensitivities as he or she decides again how close to hold the stepparent and how to balance loyalty to the biological parent.
Because labels are personal—very personal—persons often have strong emotional reactions to any changes in what they are called. In the opening story the stepdaughter referred to her stepmother as “Sandra” or “my dad's wife" for a few years. As their relationship grew over time her desired label for her stepmother changed to “Mom.” This change, however, created a threat for her biological mother. The mother’s tears and anger expressed her sense of loss and fear that she might be “losing” her daughter. The result: stress and conflict reverberates throughout both homes and the child is caught in the middle of a no-win situation.
Question: “My ex-husband makes our children feel guilty for calling my husband ‘Dad’. How should I respond?”
Answer: I wish that your son were free to decide what label he used for his stepdad. His father's feelings will surely impact his decision. If your son now backs away from calling stepdad "Dad", do not pressure him to do so. This creates a "no-win" situation for your son. Don't put him in a situation where he risks losing approval from his biological father. Further, your husband should strive to not have his feelings hurt. This isn’t about him.
Some kids find a way around this, for example, using the term “Dad” only when his biological father is not around. Taking off the pressure is important. Tell him, “I know you are in a tight spot between your Dad and your stepfather. Please know that whatever name you want to use is okay with us. The real joy here is you, not the labels."
Adults must understand that the labels children use are not crucial to family success. What is important is that children are given the freedom to choose which labels are most comfortable. For example, don't force them to call a stepparent "mommy" but don't scold them for doing so either. Children need to be granted permission to use whatever term is most fitting (as long as it conveys a basic level of respect). Telling a child, “feel free to call me Sandra if you like” or “when you are at your mother’s house this weekend, it’s okay with me if you call your stepdad ‘Daddy Tom’—it doesn’t hurt my feelings” is a grace gift to children. It relieves them of worrying about your feelings and frees them to love.
Having said that, let me immediately reassure biological parents reading this article: you will not “lose” your child to a stepparent. No matter how fond your child is of their stepparent and no matter what label they choose for them, you do not have to combat their place in your child’s heart. Biological parents have an incomparable God-given bond with their children that cannot be replaced. Besides, giving your child permission to love another always increases their love for you. It is the miracle of grace; to give it away is to receive it.
Now let me also reassure stepparents who may fear that the cold, distant label you bear today is the only one you’ll ever have. Remember, the name game changes with the growth of your family. As the relationship with your stepchildren improves, so will your label. So, give permission to their labels today and focus your energy on building a stronger relationship tomorrow.
Yes, the stepfamily name game is rather complicated. But in the end rest in knowing that children have more than enough love for everyone in their life and adults don't need to compete. Labels are just labels; love in the heart is what counts.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.