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Parenting Traps

First-Names basis

Missing "Daddy" and "Mommy."

By Kate Tuttle
July 18, 2010

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“Can you tie my shoes, Kevin?” pipes up a small voice. My 3-year-old son isn’t talking to an older brother or babysitter; he’s addressing his father. But instead of calling my husband “Daddy,” as our son had done ever since he’d started talking, in the last few weeks he had taken to using his father’s first name. And although the man in question says it only bothers him a little, I can tell he’s understating things.

My husband grew up all over the country but his roots are in the African-American South, and in his family, a child simply does not address an adult – any adult – by first name alone. There’s plenty of history behind that feeling; for centuries African-American adults were addressed informally, even by strangers, a practice intended to demean and diminish. I’ve learned that it’s OK for my son to use first names for grown-ups when modified with a title, which combines affection with respect (that’s why his first official haircut, in Atlanta, came courtesy of a lady who goes by Miss Lisa).

Of course, lots of adults chafe at the use of first names by children, but I never felt that way. My parents urged me to call people what they wished to be called – and in their mostly white, liberal, academic circles, first names were usually just fine. (I knew to switch to last names when going to church with a friend’s family or volunteering as a candy striper among senior citizens.) The schools my children have attended follow a similar pattern, with most teachers going by first name alone, although a few buck the trend.

Still, there’s something different about calling a parent by a first name. I’m surprised to realize that it may bother me even more than it does my husband. “Mommy” and “Daddy” are titles indicating not distance but familiarity, not respect (though we hope our children will respect us) but something more basic, even primal. Both of us figure our son will soon outgrow this habit, and so far we haven’t corrected him. But I’m certain that Kevin will be relieved to shed the name the world can use, and reclaim this most precious, intimate title, a word tying him back to his own father and to this little boy with a loose shoelace.

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Does it matter what kids call their parents?

  • July 18, 2010 cover
  • july 18 globe magazine cover
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