Who’s His Daddy?

I have a 4 year old son who was born when I was 18.

During the time I was with his father the relationship became abusive and I decided to move from Puerto Rico to Florida. It has been 3 years since I left the father of my son, and I’ve met a new guy. We have been dating and sharing a home for 2 years now. My son calles him daddy, but sometimes we wonder if we should tell him that he is not his “real” dad.  His real dad abuses drugs and is in trouble with the law.

My questions are:  If I don’t tell him about his real father, will it affect my relationship with him when he is older? Is it healthy for me to keep this information from my son and let him call another person daddy who is not his real father? This is something that has been under debate in my family and in his father’s family because they are involved in his life as much as my boyfriend’s family. I don’t know what to do! Thank you very much for your opinion.

~ Jennifer

Dear Jennifer,

It sounds like you’ve been down a tough road and deserve a huge amount of credit for making the health and care of your son a top priority. Your life has reached a more stable place, and now you can take a breath and make some decisions about how to share information about the past.

One of the most important principles of parenting is this: don’t lie to your kids about anything important and permanent. If you do, they will eventually learn the truth and their trust in you will be damaged.

Your love for your son comes through loud and clear, and though you’re trying to spare him the pain of finding out about his biological father, it’s not practical or realistic to believe you can hide it from him. The questions you want to consider are when, how, and how much to tell.

Let’s start with the when. As soon as possible. At 4 your son doesn’t need to know details about his father’s problems or the troubles in your relationship, but he can understand that when he was born he had a different daddy, and that daddy loved him very much but wasn’t able to take care of the family because he was sick, or however you choose to describe it. Keep it simple and neutral without criticism, and the sooner the better.

In terms of how to bring it up, a natural time is when you’re discussing how babies are born. Most 4-year-olds are very curious about this and love to talk about it. You could include his first daddy in your explanation. Be authentic and truthful, without offering negative or disturbing information. Point out that his first daddy was Auntie whoever’s brother (or son, or whatever the case) so he understands that he has family who cares about him.

Avoid making it a big deal, and discuss it as a matter-of-fact part of his identity. Your attitude will form his, so try to keep it as positive as you can. Let your son know that he can ask you any questions he has and you will be honest with him. As he gets older, you may decide to tell him more, but always try to keep your own sadness and anger about the relationship separate.

Keep in mind that he will hear things about his father from that side of the family, too, and the information should match up as much as possible. You may want to include them in the conversation at some point.

Finally, do include your boyfriend in the discussion as well. It’s fine for your son to call him daddy. The word includes so much more than being a sperm donor, and it sounds like he is filling the daddy role for your child. Knowing about his first daddy doesn’t change that.

Continue to be guided by what’s best for your little guy and you’ll always know the right thing to do. Good luck!

~ the Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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