When Kids Don't Call You 'Mom' or 'Dad'

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Mom Jenn Rose is pretty tired of naysayers who don’t approve of the fact that she lets her 5-year-old son call her Jenn. 

“Some of our family members kept ‘forgetting’ repeatedly that the boy was to call us by our first names. When talking to him, they’d constantly refer to us as ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy.’ We’d correct them and they’d claim that they slipped up,” says Rose, a blogger at Something Clever 2.0, of the decision she and her husband made before their son was even born. (Rose explains their decision on her blog: “Remember when you were little, the worst thing you could do was call your parents by their first names? … Your doctor calls you by your first name. Your boss calls you by your first name. How are these people on a higher level than your own kid, the person you’re supposed to love most in the world?”)

So what’s the big deal that, in some households, parents are inviting their kids to call them by their first name?

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This is a very personal decision, says Molly Westerman, a mom of two young kids, who wrote about the decision to just say no to parental titles in her blog, First the Egg. “We like the linguistic acknowledgement that we’re all having relationships with each other as individuals rather than as roles,” she says.

Turns out, dropping formal familial titles isn’t such an anomaly anymore, but many experts still warn against it, due to concerns that this can upset the balance of authority in the household.

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“Not only should parents set clear boundaries that they are the parents and not friends, but, by allowing a child to call you by your first name, you’ll lose your ability to have any authority,” says Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Connecticut. “After all, friends don’t set limits like parents do. They don’t ask you if you did your laundry and whether you did your homework.”

For some parents it comes down to this: The words mom or dad are too old-fashioned.

“I like being called by my first name,” says Jason Good, the father of two sons, ages 5 and 7. “My wife and I agree that while it’s a strange situation — certainly different than how we grew up — why should ‘authority’ be conveyed in a name? It seems antiquated to us when there are so many other ways to be in charge other than insisting on being called mom and dad.” 

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It’s the labels and the authority that comes from the words mom and dad that troubles parents as well.

“What we call people can shape how relationships feel and how respect works, sure, but you can’t become a friendly anti-authoritarian parent by saying ‘call me Molly’ and you can’t inspire respect, obedience and distance, if that’s what you want, by saying ‘call me Mom,’” Westerman says. “These are complicated human relationships that go beyond labels.”

But labels do matter, especially when the teen and tween phase begins, experts say.

“Teens need their parents to stay in a parental role, not become their BFFs,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist on the clinical faculty of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. “If a parent allows their teen to call them by their first name, it’s a very slippery slope for them to disrespect parental rules, like keeping curfew or not using drugs or alcohol.”

Teens may also test boundaries by calling you by your first name out of the blue, says Julie Smith, an adolescent counselor in Boulder, Colorado. “This comes up often in my practice,” she says. “Teens will often call their parents by the first name as a way to assert their independence. They’re separating from their family and using the first name makes them feel more mature.”

But could it be that ditching the titles might help teenagers feel closer to their parents?

“A first-name basis suggests a closer friendship, more equality and maybe a more in-tuned relationship,” says Donna Bozzo, whose daughters (ages 11, 13, and 15) still refer to her as mom for the foreseeable future. “Maybe some parents feel it can make them more approachable to their teens in hopes it will set the stage for turning to them for advice on tricky teenage issues.”

If your kid refuses to call you mom or dad, don’t worry. It’s probably just a passing phase.

“Often kids will go back to calling the parent mom or dad once the novelty has worn off,” Smith says. “Not being called mom or dad can make you feel invisible. However, mom and dad are just words. It’s the person behind that name who truly matters.”

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