December 30, 2007

What Makes a Real Parent?

By Janis Prince Inniss

C:\Documents and Settings\OrinA\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0116036.wmfThe stepmothers in popular children’s stories Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White were wicked enough to make “evil“ and “stepmother” seem naturally linked. When I married a man who had custody of his two children, I became a stepmother but did not morph into pure evil. But did I become a parent? 

What makes a real parent? The answer may seem clear to you if you were raised by your (biological) parents. However, the U.S. Census Bureau’s records (4.4 million stepchildren in the U.S. in 2000) would suggest that it’s likely that many of you were at least partially raised by a stepparent. Who parented you? 

Over the years, people have asked me when I am going to have children, even when they are aware that I’m a stepparent. By this, they mean, give birth to children or as they sometimes ask, “When are you going to have your own children?” 

It’s a question that has led me to wonder how my life would differ if I parented children I birthed, rather than gained by marriage. Good parenting, from my experience, observation, and study, is in large measure service to one’s children—serving their needs, sometimes at the expense of your own. And since, alongside my husband, I have been doing this to the best of my abilities, what would be different when I gave birth to my “own children”?

Being a stepparent is a tough job, requiring heart, soul and mind, but we are not always recognized as parents. Parenting, particularly great parenting, is not universally recognized as the demanding job that it is, but at least biological parents are recognized as parents, often regardless of how they parent. This is not the case for stepparents, however. Although the word “stepparent” includes “parent”, it does not convey many of the essential qualities of parenthood. Upon learning that I have two stepchildren, people typically assume that they are occasional weekend visitors to our home. In fact, we all lived together, at least initially, and the children visited their biological mother’s home every other weekend, so they spent at least 85 percent of their time with my husband and me. 

In that time I reviewed homework, provided counsel on a variety of subjects, read bedtime stories, cooked tasty, nutritious, varied meals with youth appeal, corrected C:\Documents and Settings\jprince\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\AG00424_.gifgrammar, dreamt up projects to capture the interests of a teenage boy, taught both children how to use a number C:\Documents and Settings\jprince\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0424397.jpgof computer programs, darned torn clothing, watched television programs I would ordinarily abhor, cheered participation in just about every sport, including football (although I neither understand or enjoy the sport), repeatedly watched the movie Annie, and sewed curtains that matched the whims of a little girl. You get the picture.

So-called “traditional families” are based on marriage and biology, and the law and public attitudes have reflected this belief. But when stepparents (and other non-biologically related people) parent, what legal and social rights and responsibilities should they have? If my husband and I were to divorce when the children are still minors, what legal claim should I have had to visit them or to gain custody of them? As far as I know, only 18 states recognize de facto parents (someone who acts as an actual parent) and my state of residence, Florida, is not one of them. Although not a stepparent case, one recent ruling from the Washington State Supreme Court addresses the title question:

In 1989, after dating for several months, Page Britain and

Sue Ellen ("Mian") Carvin began living together as intimates. Five years

later, they decided to add a child to their relationship and together

artificially inseminated Britain with semen donated by a male friend. On

May 10, 1995, Britain gave birth to a baby girl, L.B., and the partners

began actively coparenting her, both taking a committed, active, and loving

role in her nurturing and upbringing. Then, when L.B. was six years old,

Britain and Carvin ended their relationship and an acrimonious spate of

litigation over access to L.B. ensued.

Washington’s highest court ruled that Carvin, the non-biological parent was a “de facto parent”.

(T)he court held that a common law claim of de facto or psychological parentage exists in Washington separate and distinct from the parameters of the UPA (Uniform Parentage Act) and that such a claim is not an unconstitutional infringement on the parental rights of fit biological parents. Id. at 485. The Court of Appeals held that a de facto parent may prove the existence of a parent-child relationship by presenting evidence sufficient to prove: 

(1) the natural or legal parent consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship; (2) the petitioner and the child lived together in the same household; (3) the petitioner assumed obligations of parenthood without expectation of financial compensation; and (4) the petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship parental in nature.

Further, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case and block Carvin from seeking parental rights. Lawyers for the girl’s biological mother commented that this decision “pave(s) the way for children to have an unlimited and ever-changing number of parents.” Given that biological parents can have an unlimited and ever-changing number of partners and spouses some of whom parent, in that context, I guess the attorneys express a valid concern.

So what makes a real parent? For men, is donating sperm sufficient? In other words, is the biological contribution of sperm sufficient for a boy or man to be a parent, regardless of his role in the life of the resulting child? And does giving birth make a girl or woman a parent, regardless of whether she has parented the child? Not contributing DNA does not absolve stepparents—particularly those whose stepchildren live with them—of the demands that children make on resources such as love, attention, time, and money. I remember attending Parent Involvement Week and being introduced by the then nine-year old girl’s teacher to C:\Documents and Settings\OrinA\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0422732.jpgthe class as her Mom. Then there is the night that I attended a special performance by the same tyke. Her father was in class, her brother had no interest in her choice of activity, and her mother was unavailable. I was the girl’s sole cheer-leader. At the end of the group’s spirited performance, the gymnastics coach approached me beaming. “You’re her Mom!” she gushed. 

Due to my involvement with her, both the teacher and the coach saw me as the girl’s parent. Over the years, most teachers have chosen to continue referring to me as Mom (no step) or a parent (no step) even after learning that I am a stepparent. Their intention seems to be to say, “I see your role in this child’s life and step-parenting is not what I see you do. Parenting is what I see you do.”


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference What Makes a Real Parent?:


I think that being a "mom" or "dad" does not mean you have to be a biological parent. A mother or father is someone who takes care of a child, comforts, gives advice, loves unconditionally and the list goes on. A parent is one who grows a strong relationship with the child and most importantly always there for the child. Once you have that connection with each other it doesn’t matter whether you conceived the child or not; especially if the biological parents is not involved in the child’s life.

A very interesting artcle..
I completely agree with Tiana's comment.. Being a parent is to love unconditionally...

warm caring, loving, patient, tuff love and much more. It is the one who that is there for you. The one for your frist step frist word. frist school program the one there for the good and the bad when your a child or adult birth or step what is a stepparnet anyway a PARENT IS ANYONE WHO TAKES CARE OF A CHILD FORGET STEP

being a parent doesnt necesarily mean you had to give birth to the child. a parent is someone who love unconditionally, puts the childs needs before their own, does without when the child needs. just because you carried the child for 9 months and went through the delivery process does not make u a parent!!!

I think that being a parent takes alot of responsibilities and you have to have patience. I also think that you dont have to give birth to a child to be there parents.

What I think makes a real parent is being there for the child and being a good role model and teach them to have good values and goals in life.

When i was growing up (which i still am) I always thought i wish my parents werent so strick. But now as i get older. I realize, that a stricker parent makes such a great parent. No, it wasnt always fun but it helped me out so much in the long run. It made me a stronger person, with high standard values.

I think a good parent is caring for the child and teaching responsibilities and what and what not to do. Helping there guide in life.

A parent is someone who cares about you and takes care of you. Taking time out of their day to see that you are ok and talking to you when you need someone to talk to. They care more about you.

I think a real parent is the person that takes care of you. Feeds you and is there to help with your every need. The person that tells you when your right or wrong but no matter what loves you at the end of the day. I think some step parents can take on the role and be a good parent to the point were people think thats the parent who gave birth. Other step parents can be the ones that really dont care much about you and treat you nice because your their parters love and then talk about you when your not there.

A person who loves, takes care, and uses every ounce of them to focus on the child. Both birth parents and step parents both have a responsibility to take care of the kids no matter what the title saids. The difference between birth parents and step parents is that the step parents would have to learned how the child acts and their behavior.

anyone can have a child but it takes a dedicated man and woman to be parents

A parent is someone who does things for a child, not because they have to but because they care enough to do what is right for their child

I think that a real parent can be defined as someone who takes care of the child no matter what the cost. They love the child with strong conviction and would do anything for them. A real parent disiplines the child in order to make them a better person. They teach them life lessons that will make them who they are and help to know what they stand for. I beleive that a step parent can easily become a "real parent." Alothough it would have to take time because the birth parent knows that thier child is from their own flesh and blood. Step parents sometimes have to learn to love the child and learn from their husband or wife on how to love that child as thier own.

What makes a real parent is not only being involved with the production of a child, but also being unconditionally willingly to care for the child. A real parent parent should be willing to give up their own life for their child. A real parent should want nothing less than the best for their child and train he or she up in a respectful manner. A real parent should love his or her child the same if the child is healthy or if they child has some type of birth defect. The experiences of birth parents and step parents is different in that there is not that "connection" in some cases. But in some cases children feel more connected to the step parents.


A real parent is someone who gives real attention to their child, loves them, and takes care of them. Some people who are birth parents are not good parents at all. On the other hand, some birth parents are much better to their kids than their stepparents. But a real parent can be anyone, sometimes even a grandparent. A real parent would do anything for their child and thinks more of their child's well-being than their own. The experiences are different for birth parents and stepparents, but they vary. Some stepparents have been with the child since birth or close to it, while other stepparents are only brought into the picture much later in life. I believe it all depends on the situation as to what kind of experiences they may have.

I think a real parent is someone who cares for their child and wants the best for it. In some situations, step parents can be more of a parent then a birth parents, sometimes better.

uncodional love !!!

a parent is the person you learn from the are your role models. if they not birth parents, or step parents, foster parents whatever. it doesnt matter if that preson rasie you teaces you be their no matter what or not judge and try to guide you in the right direction that is a parnent. those good memories bad memories cries laughs fusses fights you will learn from it all and in the end if that parent or those parents are still there after all of that then you got a true parent,

I think that a "real parent" is one who cares for you no matter what. Who listens to your problems and helps you solve them, who will stand up for you if you need them to. I don't see the need for calling someone a stepparent, especially considering the fact that some stepparents have raised their spouses children from a young age. If I married a man and he already children, I wouldn't see the need in introducing them as my "stepchildren." I would want to introduce them as my children(with the children willing to let me call them that, of course). If someone were to ask when was I going to have my own children, I would point to my stepchildren and say that I already have.

love and understanding my mom was a singal parent and she did the best she could but i know thats its sometthing much work at everyday so i guess its something you must love and work at.

A real parent makes someone who is going to care for the child, raise them up the right way, love them, nurture them, provide for them, etc. A birth parent can share the experience of the birth and tell how they fist felt when the child was first seen that a stepparent cannot. A birth parent already feels unconditionally about the child, but its something a stepparent has to get use to.

A true parent is sacrificial. He or she places his needs secondary to the needs of the child. It shouldn't matter whether the child is biologically his or not. A child needs tremendous love in the form of giving and disciplining. We love them by correcting them in love. The key is to do it "in love" not in anger. A parent ahould never be too proud to admit when he is wrong. Asking for forgiveness from our children when we get angry speaks volumes. Plus, a hug goes a long, long way as well as giving words of praise.


Being a parent is the most important job that you will ever have. It doen't mean you will never make a mistake. But one thing you have to be willing to do is put that child first. It doesn't matter if you gave birth to that child or not. If you are loving, feeding and providing a roof over that child's head you're a parent. I raised four sons and now that they are grown, I feel bless just to be their mom.

Being a parent is a longterm commitment to a child who will grow up and have children of their own. To be a parent you have to be willing to give up your life for theirs and you have to take responsibility for that child. You have to make sure that all of their needs are met before yours are. To be a parent you have to say that you will give them the best you can and know that they deserve nothing but the best.

Just because someone is a biological parent does not mean they are a "real" parent. A parent is there for your financial, spiritaul, medical, and educational needs. A stepparent goes through things that a biological parent would not have to go through as far as hearing things like "your not my real mom/dad. Teens can be a head ache rather you are their biological parent or not, there is a lot to be said about the man or woman willing to stay around and help out.

I am a parent. A parent is the provider. Anyone who has kids that they take care of is a parent. The difference between a birth parent and step parent is the birth part. In my opinion, thats it. Sometimes kids are raised by step parents their whole life and when they find out that they are not really of the same blood, they still choose to call them their parents.

As long as you have uncoditional love for a child, the term step or birth parent is irrelavant. Even though I have grew up with step parents and given them a hard time. I look back now and see they loved me as if i were thiers. It can be an akward situation at times, but i would rather have step parents than no parents.

Anyone can have a child...some don't take care of the ones they I have. I believe that a real parent is a person that takes care of and raises a child. Birth parents and stepparents can be one in the same. a stepparent can be just as good a parent or even a better parent than a biological parent. I don't believe that stepparents get the credit or the respect that they deserve.

To me, the true definition of a "good parent" is just someone who unconditionally LOVES that child no matter what. They'd give their life just to make their child well if it's sick. They would sacrifice anything to put food on the table for the child. All parents make mistakes. I do know that there is a special bond between a birth mother and a child, but I know so many step parents or adoptive parents who care for and nurture their children way more than any biological parent would.t

Well im the definition of a good parent i do believe..:) Seriously a good parent is someone who cares for their child, loves that child unconditionally no matter what. a good parent teaches their child righ from wrong and shows their child how and what to do to become a the best person they can be. I don't beleieve their a difference between a biological parent and a step parent but the biological parent gave birth but a real loving and caring parent can love that child the same as a biological parent can.

What`s the difference between " father and dad"? "mother and mom"? I thing this is all this article is about here. Of course, the answer would come very quickly... like " Mom is the short for Mother" But, is it really? I think Mother and Father calls more for biological link, that everyone - I mean normally healthy - has the potential to be. Now there is not the problem. The real issue is who is able to be a real mom, dad, step or not. I know many teens who have children with whom they are not quite involved with, even if they live with them . I`m talking here about love, trust, openness, security, presence and and care. I personally had many moms and dads for my whole life... and I`m still getting to know my father. I never spent more than three months with my mother. So to say, for me, "step"-mom has no meaning, as long as you are a MOM.

did you guys see that Jesus had a Father and a step father (Joseph)? Now had this Step-thing ever prevented him from being a dad for Jesus? This is all of it: Love and Care. the rest is meaningless.

i think children define parenthood. you can have a birth parent that has never had an appearence in the childs life and they call the step parent as they were the birth parents. being there all the time to love them and be there throgh all of their problems makes you a parent. a woman can give birth but that doesnt make her a mother until she has committed her life to the childs well being and their protection.

I feel that a parent is much more than just birthing a child or attributing to the birth of a child! Today so many people call themselves a parent but the fact is a parent is the one who unconditionally loves the child, sacrifices, comforts, makes sure that one way or another the child has all basic needs met, and most of all takes the time to really connect. Remember children are always watching and if you don't teach them morals they may never get them.

This is a tough question.... I think caring about your child and taking into account that they are a whole person that will have emotions and real person responses to your actions makes you a good parent. I've been reading Alle C. Hall's blog About Childhood lately, and I think she makes a big point of pointing to the ways in which parents can become better at their job by really acknowledging their kids as people and thinking about how childhood becomes such a key part of the development of a whole person. Definitely worth the read for a new perspective on children, parenting and writing.

Check it out!

i think the real parent is the parent that takes to time to take care of the child and make sure the child has everything he/sge needs weather or not you are the step mother real mother or father it really doesnt long as every cjild is treated the same way nothing more nothing less

I do not believe you have to be the biological parent to be considered a parent. I also believe that as a step parent, you should try to treat your step children as if they were your own.

Someone who takes care of their children, whether they are step parents or not. Taking care of someone could include just being there when they need to talk and putting food on the table and the most important seperate their wants from their needs and handle them accordingly.

What makes a real parent is not a simple question but I guess the most simple answer is love. The love that someone feels for another and shows on a day to day basis. Someone who takes the child to the doctors, gets them involved in school, and listens to their problems in life. These are just some of the things real parents do. The only difference in parents and stepparents is the parent is the biological parent of a child where the stepparent is not. A stepparent should love their partners children as if they were their own although some do not.

Every one has their own opinion about what is a parent? or What is a parent's role in their child's life? I agree with everyone on this, Yes a parent (mother/father)or both goes with out to provide for their child. Yes a parent loves unconditionally, Yes, a parent loves, cares, shares, provide,shelters, all of that, but first a parent has to become not only parent/s they have to be a friend as well, you have to have a compassionate friendship with your child and earn trust guy's and gal's because these days it's easy to lose your child to the streets and if he/she can't at least talk to your child,and come to some kind of aggreement, then you will start to having all kinds of trouble and it won't be that the parent didn't raise the child right or love him/her any less the the rest of the children. We have to let our kids know that we're gonna be there for him or her cause some kids can't cope with peer pressure, puberty, sex, girls/boys-(friend), or any of life's changes so you have to create a bond with them cause if not they are gonna listen to their friends who always steer them in the wrong direction and it's hard to get them back after that. So it's important to love, understand, care provide,and talk to our children.

A good parent is in each and everyone of us. We love our children, we do the best we can to make them happy and care for them. We teach them right from wrong, to be courteous, to love and respect others, and all of that. We love our children unconditionally regardless of what they has done or said to other people. We sometimes go and do without for them just so they can have the things they want at times. But you know that that can spoil a child and they will be looking for that all the time and not wanting to do for them self once they are of age. With that said we do what we have to as good parents for our children.

I'm totally agreeing with (Tiana Gorrell) on this on. You don't biologically have to be connected to a child to be a good parent, or a mom or dad. Just being there with that child to form a bond and love that child unconditionally and teach that child family values and respect is pretty much all you have to do in order to become a good parent.

I think conviction makes you a real parent. No one is born a perfect parent. God gives us the right tools along with a conscience to provide for and love our children. Putting someone else needs before yours. Loving ur child more than you love your self. A real parent is not defined by DNA but by TLC. It takes a village to raise a child.

I was raised with a step-parent. My step-dad has been there for me every day since i was about 4 years old. He has been the one there guiding me, showing me unconditional love and support, taught me how to swim, how to drive, he has shown me some handyman things around the house as well. He always made sure i was involved in his life when he played softball, went to motocross races with my step-brother. Even at almost 29 years old, he is still there for me whenever i need him and to me that is what a real parent is. He is my dad...regardless of biology.

Being a real parent is to love your kids no matter what.

Parenting is so much more than biology... I have brought up two kids not 'mine' and my own biological daughter.. all.. are my chuldren..

What an awesome post! I am a "step" mother of two dealing with much hate and drama by their biological mother. Though I deeply love the kids and have been caring for them as if they are my own, it's been a a real battle since we alternate having the kids every other week between their biological mom's house and our house with my husband (their dad). Their biological mom constantly feeds them negative thoughts about me. I deeply appreciate this article! It is wonderful seeing others share the same belief as I do.

To be a parent whether biological or otherwise is a great honor.

i do agree with you Janis. being a step parent is no cup of tea. it takes a great and a big heart

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

The Real World

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More

The Family

Learn More


Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

« Big Plans for Little Saigons | Main | The Celebrity Effect »