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“Can Phil* be my Daddy?” was the question one of my closest friends was hit with by her 6-year old son a few days ago. She’s a single mom who just started dating a guy she’d been friends with for a while. Towards the end of summer he treated her and her son to a day at a baseball game. Phil and the boy ended up getting along really well, bonding over peanuts, rough-housing and being able to use the same bathroom. I wasn’t too surprised when her son, who is known for saying shocking things, hit a home run with this gem.

“I didn’t know how to respond so I just sent him to bed,” she revealed to me that morning.  Dating can be difficult for a single mom, especially when it comes to determining who has earned the right to a relationship with your child and clearly defining the boundaries of roles and respect.  It’s one thing when a child has a father who isn’t involved or has passed away, but what about when the child’s actual father is in the picture? If there’s one thing many single moms can attest to, it’s the fact that any man can make a child but being someone’s dad is a title that should be associated with responsibility, respect, love and support.  Whether you’re dating, married or co-habitating, what does a man have to do to deserve the “dad” title?

“It’s one thing if you’ve raised me from birth, but if you’re just dating my mom and have no real relationship with me, how can you expect for me to call you ‘dad’?” a relative once told me. ” Especially when I already have one of those.” My family member was raised by a single mom who spent much of her daughter’s adolescence dating and marrying—twice.  Which brings up a great point:  when a child has a father who is involved, supportive and consistent, most children know clearly who their dad is and don’t have to question the role he plays in their lives.  Of course there will come the occasion where dad won’t buy them that violent video game or won’t allow them go to party on a school night where a child may momentarily prefer the pushover parental figure, but when I’ve talked to children raised in blended families most kids make no debate over who they consider their father and it has very little to do with their DNA.

Circle of Moms offers some great insight on the parental name game and much of it boils down to mutual respect.  As much as it may mean to a step-parent to be a father figure, parents have to be sure to focus more on the relationship and not so much on what it’s called.  No child should be forced to call a step-parent “Mom” or “Dad”; that’s a title they have to find comfort with in their own time. So don’t be offended by being “Mr. Phil” for a while or even forever.  At the same time it really annoys me when mothers confuse their children with the dreaded “uncle” title.  That man is not your brother, he’s your boyfriend.  Parents should avoid casually throwing around titles that are more convenient for themselves and more confusing for the child.

It’s important to understand that most children feel powerless so parents may need to make an extra effort to allow them to have control over certain areas in their lives.   Ron L. Deal, author of the series “The Smart Step-Family” says it’s important to note that younger children tend to base titles on emotions  (You know how one day Little Casey’s best friend is Joy until Joy doesn’t let her play with her Barbie so then the best friend title goes to Bella?).  Don’t be surprised if Phil is “Dad” one day and back to “Mr. Phil” the next.  Young children should be taught about boundaries as well so they don’t go assigning everyone titles that don’t apply.  Older children understand that assumptions, traits and expectations can accompany titles and are more decisive about how they address people and may even use those titles to manipulate emotions. Either way, check your ego at the door when it comes to kids and titles.  Being called by a first name doesn’t necessarily imply disrespect, just like being called Dad doesn’t necessarily mean you should be waiting on that monogrammed robe next Father’s Day.

Your children have very little say in who enters their lives, when they do so and for how long they’ll stay, but they should have a say in how they interact with them. Like adults, it takes time to get comfortable with someone.  Think about how big of a deal most women make over the “What Are We?” convo; consider how a child feels when it comes to something as a permanent as a parent.  Try focusing a little less on finding the Hallmark card that truly reflects the relationship and more on the relationship itself. When it comes to the people who truly love and care for your children,  it really is the more the merrier, no matter what they’re called.

(*Name changed for privacy).

Toya Sharee is a program associate for a Philadelphia non-profit that focuses on parenting education and building healthy relationships between parents, children and co-parents. She also has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog BulletsandBlessings


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