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Heidi Stevens: The complex steps of being ‘steps’

The most common response I get from readers when I occasionally mention my stepson is a frustrated finger wag: Stop using the term “stepson.”

“You’re making him feel like a second-class citizen when you call him your ‘stepson,’ ” wrote one woman. “You should call him your son, just like you do your biological son.”

But what about his biological mother, who is a huge and important part of his life? Wouldn’t calling him my son unfairly push her aside?

I ran this question by Ron Deal, director of FamilyLife Blended and author of “The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family” (Bethany House Publishers). He reached out to me after a recent column I wrote about blending families.

Deal was quoted in the Wall Street Journal piece that served as a springboard for my column, and he wanted to chat about some of the common complexities of blending.

One of the most complex steps, he said, is deciding what to call each other.

“The terminology people use to refer to their family members is important because it gives definition to that relationship,” Deal, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said. “Often the terminology is indicative of the level of bondedness and openness that people have toward one another.”

Which is why many adults, he said, prefer the term “blended family” to “stepfamily.”

“People want a term that communicates love and affection,” he said. “Who wants to be called a stepmother, especially given the connotation of the wicked stepmother in our culture? ‘Step’ sounds like someone you would never let into your heart.”

But that’s a grown-up thing, Deal says. Kids want words that honor every layer of their family.

“For children, ‘stepmom’ captures, ‘I have a mother and a stepmother,’ ” Deal said. “It makes it very clear who is and who is not my mom, and that is important to them. It allows them to stay loyal to their mom, even as they make room in their heart, over time, for their stepmom.”

But what about how adults refer to kids? Do kids hear “step” as “second-class?”

Probably not, Deal said. Kids, after all, are pretty rigid sticklers for accuracy, especially coming from the grown-ups in their life.

But when in doubt, ask them.

“I highly recommend sitting down and having a conversation to say, ‘Hey, what are we going to call each other?’ ” Deal said. “ ‘What feels comfortable to you?’ As long as there’s some respect in the terms and they’re mutually agreeable, wonderful. Follow the lead of the child.”

And know that the terms may change over time.

“As the crockpot cooks you – stepfamilies cook very slowly, but you get there – your terms will change as your relationship bonds and grows,” he said. “The important thing is to give everyone a place to start and move forward from.”