I had friends over recently with their two daughters aged three and one, and the three-year-old suddenly called her father by his first name instead of Dad. We all started laughing and mocking our friend for not having any authority. The little girl was confused and did not seem to get the joke – and really, where does the joke come from? What exactly do we assume about the relationship if a child uses their parent’s given name instead of the usual Mum or Dad?
As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I am curious to think about these questions and to explore how they relate to my practice. I have trained and lived in London for years, but since my mum and dad were not getting any younger and London not getting any less busy (although after Covid I am not so sure about that either!), I decided to move back to my hometown, Belgrade (Serbia), where I made myself a little corner of my dining room to work as an online therapist.
It has been six years now gradually developing my practice in an online setting, working both in English and in Serbian, and specialising in expatriates. This means that I am in touch with people of various cultures, nationalities and backgrounds, which gives me an insight into the questions concerning this piece: Why are we expected to call our parents by their generic names Mum and Dad while they naturally have their own first names? Why does calling our parents by their first names translate into ‘this parent does not have any authority’? Is it culture-related or is there something in human psychology that means we show disrespect by doing so?
Thoughts and experience
I am not a big fan of generalisation, but as far as I remember most of my clients call their parents the equivalent of Mum/Mom and Dad, sometimes Mother and Father, regardless of their age or culture. When I think about it, for most of my clients, I don’t ever hear what their parents are called. However, I have noticed an exception that really stands out: When my clients are angry or feel like they would (at least subconsciously) disown their parents, they use their first names. For example, if a client is having a disagreement with their parent or feels that their parent is guilty or responsible for something, they use their first name.
We start our life by idealising our parents, seeing them with “pink glasses”, so there is always a level of disappointment when we realise (even as adults) that our parents are also human, who make human mistakes. When we take those pink glasses” off, we might feel more equal to our parents and begin to call them by their first names instead of divine “Mother” or “Father”. In fact, I sometimes feel that the status of Mother or Father is equal to God in the eyes of a child. Parents represent divine creatures who know it all, who keep us alive, who make no mistakes.
When doing research for this post, I was disappointed to discover how little has been written about this topic. Jose Maanmieli (2019), however, is an exception with his extensive research on all things Mum and Dad. Jose underlines the fact that kinship terms (as anthropologists call them) have not drawn much attention from psychologists and linguists, even though these terms are clearly special and relevant to those fields. Another exception is Michelle Pascoe (2021), who in an article for a linguistics magazine, discusses in detail the relation of Mum and Dad to how children acquire language. These are some of the first words we learn as babies, and they become so embedded into our way of observing the world around us that using anything else feels unnatural and causes discomfort. These words contribute to our representation of parental roles, reinforcing the structure of the family.
Maanmieli and Pascoe underline the puzzling fact that “mom” usually refers to the speaker’s mother, even though the expression is equally used to refer to someone else’s mother. In a similar way, when we analyse a child’s drawing of “dad”, we assume they have drawn their own dad and not somebody else’s. We would look at the way “dad” is represented in this drawing (small or big, close or far from the child, more or less detailed, etc.) We can, therefore, assume that the ideal words mom and dad inform our image of them. Children often idealise their parents, for example, by drawing them with more hair than they really have or with a thinner figure. The ideal image of our parents contributes somewhat to their authority, but also to the trust children have in their parents to provide them with a safe environment to survive. However, as we grow up and these needs become less prominent, we start seeing our parents in a more realistic manner. Our parents can then become separate individuals in our mind and when we feel angry, we may start calling them by their proper names.
I used to have a client whose parents were divorced, and my client told me she felt awkward calling them mum and dad because they were not together anymore. They had lost that ideal image she had of them before the divorce, so she felt it was more equal and more appropriate to use their first names when she spoke about them. Another client’s mom was in a nursing home, barely able to speak or move, so my client felt like a parent to her own mother. Again, in this case, she thought it would be more appropriate to call her by her first name. At the same time, however, this word conveyed anger because caring and providing for her mother gave my client less time for herself. It is also quite common for children who were abused in any way by their parents to use their parents’ first names instead of mum and dad. In this case, it is important to separate the loving, caring image of mum and the person who abused the child, who has a proper name.
The importance of Mum and Dad
On the other hand, there are various nicknames for “mother” that can make a mother stand out, reflect her character and the unique relationship you have with her. While I was doing research for this article, I ran into a website that offered this resource precisely (Applebury, 2021). For example, Momma Hen and Momma Bear could indicate a protective mother, while Mamma Mia or Mammacita could be a cultural way of distinguishing mothers in a certain environment. Super Mom or Captain Mom could mean that you see your mother as a leader or a superhero. Even though most of these nicknames seem to relate to a positive image of “mother” and her uniqueness, they still derive from the original word, avoiding the mother’s personal name. This would seem to show respect to that somewhat idealistic, godly image we develop in early childhood.
There are also instances where parents and often grandparents insist on their children calling them by their proper names. There could be several reasons for that, but subconsciously, the parents in this situation may want to take off the responsibility of parenthood. Alternatively, they may want to feel younger or closer to their children this way.
This question is relevant to authority figures and the way our personality is formed. Even Freud underlined the importance of the super ego as represented by parents, teachers, those who teach us the distinction between right and wrong, or those we consult about important decisions in life. To become good and functional members of society, it is important to have boundaries between what we want and what is acceptable. This is what an authority figure does; and the first authority figure is a parent who is represented by the symbol MUM or DAD. Even the ancient Egyptians used symbols and psychology has heavily researched the meaning of symbolism for humans. If we look at MUM as a symbol of care, attention and unconditional love, then calling her MUM would translate into these virtues. A proper name, such as Maria, would not necessarily represent the same characteristics.
Finally, while it was incredibly interesting to think about this question from my point of view, both personally and professionally, I would agree with Pascoe and Maanmieli that there is not enough psychological research to help us understand why the words we call our parents make such a difference.
G. Applebury (2021). 120+ Clever Names for Mom or Mother, M.A., Marriage and Family Therapy.
https://family.lovetoknow.com/about-family-values/120-clever-names-mom-mother (last accessed 30.01.2022)
S. Freud (1927, ed 2020). The ego and the Id. General Press.
J. Maanmieli (2019), Why we call parents “parents”. https://alethes.net/notes/why-we-call-parents-parents/
M. Pascoe (2021), The acquisition of kinship, Babel, The language magazine. https://babelzine.co.uk/babel-number-34-february-2021/