First, since I was last actively active with my blog (let's say Winter 2007), I have applied, been accepted and completed my first year of school as a Master's student in Critical Studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. I have also moved in with my boyfriend and his 3 kids, so the concept of the stepfamily is something very personal for me.
Before I became part of a stepfamily, I never thought twice about using the term, "stepchild" to refer to the overlooked branch of some field of inquiry - such as "for years crochet was the neglected stepchild of the fiber world." OK, so that usage is kinda funny, but only because it's about crochet and "the fiber world." However, I suppose the humor I find in yarnwork raises its own ethical dilemma, but we'll save that for another post - when my grandma is in town (sorry, I couldn't resist). Now that I am part of a stepfamily, I find the derogatory usage of the term, "stepchild," not only offensive, but personally hurtful. My stepchildren are certainly not neglected, not by any of their parents - biological or step. I also never really noticed how often and offhandedly it is used. Like the good academic that I am, in preparing for this post, I visited Google Scholar and typed in "stephchild" and "term." I found an article from the journal, Marriage and Family Review, titled, "How Society Views Stepfamilies." A lot of it is pretty obvious, especially for those of you who may be part of a stepfamily. The authors, Lawrence H. Ganong and Marilyn Coleman, argue that, in relation/contrast to the ideology/ideal of the nuclear family, the stepfamily is seen as an "incomplete institution" haunted by "stigma."
Ganong and Coleman argue that this stigma is furthered by the derogatory use of stepfamily terms, most notably "stepchild." The also state that the use of these terms in a derogatory manner, referring to "someone or something that is abused, neglected, or unwanted" as a "stepchild," is not only metaphorical, but actually supported by standard dictionary definition. The OED online cites, "orphan," as the first listing under the word, "stepchild." Like my jokingly inappropriate remark above about crochet, the use of the term "orphan" in a derogatory manner is another issue which should be further explored. Not a standard dictionary, but indicative of popular usage of terms, the Urban Dictionary, gives usage suggestions for the term red-headed stepchild, all of which are very derogatory.
In one of Ganong and Coleman's final sections of their article, "What Can Be Done?" the authors suggest that, "Avoidance of terms with negative connotations may help to reduce negative attitudes and expectations. The term stepchild used as a metaphor for something that is unwanted or abused should be considered as inappropriate to use to illustrate a point as a racial or ethnic slur would be." I feel that all that is needed, in most cases, is for people to be aware of the term as hurtful to those people who are part of a stepfamily. If you are in a situation where you would use the term in a metaphorical and/or derogatory manner, stop and consider whether anyone you are addressing may be part of a stepfamily and realize that your comment may hurt them. And, more importantly, realize that your use of the term in a metaphorical and/or derogatory manner serves only to reinforce the negative connotation and stigma of the stepfamily, which is probably not something that most people care to do. Like Ganong and Coleman suggest, think of the metaphorical and/or derogatory use of stepfamily terms as you would racial or ethnic slurs - in this sense, their use would not be acceptable.