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Ex-etiquette: When is it appropriate to tell a child about biological parent?

Jann Blackstone, Tribune News Service on

Published in Family Living

When I was 17, I had a child with a friend from high school. We were experimenting and it seemed like no big deal. She was going to have an abortion, then at the last minute decided to keep the baby. I was young, stupid and not supportive. I saw him only a few times before I went into the air force. I have not talked to his mother since, although I stay up on my son by staying in touch with friends and family.

Fast forward nine years. I'm now married with a six-month-old son with my wife. I think it's important that my older son knows his father and that he has a brother, but his mother has married the guy she dated after me and I'm not sure if my son knows the truth -- nor that she wants to tell him. What's good ex-etiquette?

I have written about this situation quite a few times -- I can't count how many emails I get a year asking about the same problem. I attribute it to the fact that the media has so sexualized teens that they really don't connect that sex makes babies. That's what it tells them in sex education, but there's a disconnect when it comes to music, movies, videos, social media, etc. Almost all have told me they just didn't think it would happen to them.

Indulge me for a second, I would like to describe what I see often happens from that point. I realize it's a generalization.

The father grows up, marries someone else, has a child, realizes what a jerk he's been and wants to right his wrong. But, the mother, having had to take on all the responsibility of raising the child often has met someone else who loves her and the child and accepts him as his own. Because of their desire to give the child a close family unit and believe it is in his best interest, he is never told that mom's partner is not his biological father -- plus, the extended family is sworn to secrecy. Everyone knows the truth, but the child. Bad ex-etiquette. He should have been told at the beginning. At this point, the child is about 8.

Here's the question that must be addressed -- is it better for the child to find out at this point or not?

Truly, it depends on the life the child has been leading. If mom has been involved with drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, etc., it may be a god-sent that there's someone to save him from his plight. Most of the time, however, I see the opposite. Dad showing up after 8 years turns the child's life upside down and he's an emotional mess. It undermines his security and self-esteem to his very core.


It has been my experience that if this situation was taken back to court, the courts would allow the biological father a chance to make amends. However, don't be surprised if it's simply too late and the child has no desire to meet his biological father. Forcing him may do more harm than good.

I would suggest a therapist be involved to guide you through the procedure. Most likely you will be prompted to begin slowly with his mother merely explaining the situation, graduating to letters from the bio dad that includes a heartfelt apology, to supervised visits with a trusted adult present, to short hourly visits, and so on. You will know early on if it's the right thing to do. Do not force it. Follow his lead. That's good ex-etiquette.

I will address the emotional and medical concerns with keeping this sort of thing secret in my next column.

(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website at

(c)2019 Jann Blackstone

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