My son is 3 1/2 years old. I have been separated from his biological father since he was 6 months old and when my son was 1 1/2 years old, I met my new partner. We are now engaged and have been living together for over a year as a family.

My son took to calling his step-dad "dada" on his own pretty quickly. He now calls his bio-dad "Daddy" and step-dad "Dadda". This was ok with bio-dad until just this past weekend when my son went and stayed with bio-dad.

Bio-dad has now, after a year and a half of my son calling his step-dad "dada" decided that this is no longer OK with him and he basically spent the entire weekend trying to reverse the "dada" title and telling my son that he may only now call his step dad by his first name.

Bio-dad thinks that my son is confused about having two dads and that this is damaging to our son, even though I have always tried to explain to my son what the difference is between his biological dad and his step dad. To me, and probably most of you, I am sure that it is obvious that what bio-dad is doing right now is very confusing and potentially damaging to my son.

When I picked him up from his visit, he tried his best to explain that he isn't allowed to call him "dada" anymore, while holding back tears. I explained to him "it's OK, sweetheart. ____ is just what your daddy calls him. You can still call him "dada". It was heartbreaking and now I wonder if I am confusing him more. But at the same time, step dad is the dad who is there every day, feeding, bathing, reading, teaching. He is, on all accounts, my son's dad. Not to say bio-dad is not, of course. But bio-dad misses weekends frequently, shortens weekends often, etc. and I feel like the fact that his relationship with our son is not great because of his own actions, he is trying to damage his relationship with his step dad by stripping his title.

Any thoughts or advice?

Step dad and I are meeting with a family therapist to discuss it this week. I just don't know how to maintain normalcy and stability between the two dad's if bio-dad continues to choose to confuse our son. I have no control on what goes on in his house and vice versa and I feel like this is lose-lose because if I allow bio-dad to strip step-dad's title, I am setting myself up for future attempts to control my family and if I have to reverse this brainwashing (for lack of a better word) every two weeks, I might also be contributing to the confusion.

4 Answers 4


Bio-dad seems to be a control freak intent of damaging the relationship between your son and your partner who is acting as his stepdad. The word "sperm donor" is probably too difficult for your son, maybe you could teach him to call the biological father "speedo". (No, don't!)

Let's just say that you are not the one confusing your son, it's the boys biological father. Tell the father that his son was in tears, that he was badly disturbed, that this is not going to happen again, and if it does, that you then will try to have his contact to his son reduced or have it happen under supervision.

To answer your actual question, "How do I tell my son": your son knows that they are different people, that they act differently, and that they are there at different times and act different towards him. The difference between someone who is his biological father and someone who isn't is probably beyond him at this time. What actually counts for him is who is there for him, and who makes him cry and who doesn't, and he knows that.

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    answer completely disregards the needs of the child and the relationship with father. Reads as nothing more than one sided justification for mother to so as she pleases regardless of anything else. Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 21:59
  • Whoa there. I'd significantly diminish the tone of this answer. The first paragraph can be outright deleted here. I don't disagree that bio-dad is causing the friction here, but that doesn't equate to painting him as unequivocal human scum hellbent on damaging and hurting others - and treating him this way will likely just perpetuate the issue rather than solve it.
    – Flater
    Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 9:47

I would say to be the parents you want to be -- loving and supportive to your son. Listen to him and I'd just pretty much ignore what bio-dad prefers your husband be called in your own home. Your son will learn to call Dadda by a name that works for his bio-dad.

As to how to tell your son the difference, he probably already knows. It has always been this way, so I do not think it is necessary to explain. He'll ask if he has a question.

When I was a kid, we knew all the rules at each different home. Jumping on furniture was okay at Mary's but not at Billy's. Grabbing a cookie at Billy's was okay -- but stay out of the kitchen at Mary's!

Your son will learn how to negotiate his different situations.

Over time, your son will repeat everything he hears. Make sure what he hears from you and your husband is not negative about bio-dad.

Another way to handle it could be a local thing, but I heard Smum and Sdad all the time in the school where I taught, and we all knew the 's' was for 'step'. The title grows with the child so that Sdaddy become Sdad. 'Dadda' may not be appropriate later.

If you are concerned that this is any sort of emotional abuse, then you must act.

I'd start by taking notes of what has already happened and date that, then begin journaling after every visit, date the entries, add photos, and drawings from your child. A friend of mine takes the photo in front of the time and dated weather channel so it is proof of timing. Your ex nor your son are told about this -- the picture taking is just 'Mum taking a picture'. You note when appointments for visits are missed or shortened and the reasons given.

After a few months of notes, ask your lawyer or child's doctor if they think you have reason to change custody. I think it is very difficult to get custody changed and that likely you're going to have to live with it the way it is.


You could tell him there is a difference between the Daddy you were with when your son was born versus the Dadda you are with now. Being there when he was born makes his original Daddy special, which is why you keep taking your son to visit him. Daddy wants to be special, so it makes him feel sad when you talk about Dadda instead of using Dadda's name, because he feels he might lose that specialness.


Getting a child to call your partner dada is obviously going to cause conflict with the father. Put yourself in his situation, would you like it if you were the non custodial parent and father was getting child to call another woman mama, would that be OK for you ?

The child has a father, it isn't your partner, however much you might wish it was, it is wrong to try to diminish his role in child's life by getting him to think he has 2 fathers and I would suggest that in this instance father is right and that his request isn't unreasonable.

your partner is more present in your child's life by your design, it is not a legitimate justification and you are the one that is responsible for introducing this confusion into your son's life, not father, you should have established the proper relationship between child and your partner from the start.

(Edit) To clarify, a proper relationship is not that of a father/son when the child already has a father that is present in their life. The situation is clear, OP wants her partner to be a father figure to child, father is understandably upset about his role being diminished in such a way, child is confused by what has happened as a result.

I do not find it acceptable at all for someone to take a child away from a parent then encourage them to have a parent-type relationship with someone else. It is completely self-serving and bound to cause conflict, confusion and resentment. There are NOT two dads in this situation.

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    This answer seems to have a poor understanding of the situation, and of the value that step-parents can have in a child's life. What the "proper relationship" is varies significantly from family to family.
    – Acire
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 23:32
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    I'm confused. Are you saying the man who raises the child most of the time must not fulfil the role of a father? If so, why? And how is their role supposed to significantly differ from that of a father?
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 9:35
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    @Peter, that is what I am saying. Mother's partner is more present in child's life by the mother's design. That must not be allowed to undermine the relationship between child and father and undermine his role as a parent in child's life. Whatever the relationship between mother's partner and child it shouldn't be that of father/child because the child already has a father and it will cause confusion and conflict, as demonstrated by the OP. Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 11:01
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    @Peter I do not understand why anyone would think it is acceptable for a child to be encouraged to have a parent/child relationship with someone other than their parent when said parent is already a presence in child's life. I do not know any father or mother that would be OK with their child calling another person mama or dada. It is obviously part of a self serving agenda the OP has. Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 11:18
  • @peter what do you suggest ? Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 23:05

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