You know these kids who call their parents by their first names. You’ve seen them in movies and on TV: the sprout-eating flower child whose parents decline to be called Mr. and Mrs. Smith, saying, “Please, call us Rainbow and Arugula”; or the imperious brat who refuses to recognize his father’s authority, raising an eyebrow as he says, “I don’t think so, Steve.” The mere suggestion that a child would call his parents anything other than Mom and Dad is a perennial punchline, a clear sign of how hippie-dippy and/or ineffectual the parents must be.
The joke is older than you think: in his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis describes the insufferable Eustace Scrubb as “the sort of boy who calls his parents Harold and Alberta rather than Father and Mother.”
These jokes always struck me as a bit odd, because I was neither a weirdo nor a brat, but I called my parents by their names. I always had, from the time I first learned to talk.
My parents didn’t do it on purpose. They assumed their child would grow up saying Mommy and Daddy at first, and then Mom and Dad, just like most children in America—they just took no particular steps to make it happen. I learned to say their names by imitating the way they addressed each other, and—rather than stepping in to quash the habit—they just went with it.
When I was school-aged, I became aware that I was different in this respect from other kids. I didn’t think much of it, but at a playdate or birthday party, when the others saw me interacting with my parents, they would ask me: Why do you use their names? Why not Mom and Dad? Sometimes they would ask with a hint of awe or fear in their voices, as if they could barely imagine being so insolent, so disrespectful. They would even ask, Are they your real parents?
Now, for the first time, I was forced to defend this practice that had always seemed as normal and natural to me as drinking water and breathing air. “Because it’s his name! Because it’s her name!” I insisted. How could it be disrespectful to address people by their names?
If anything (it seemed to me), the other kids were the ones who owed an explanation. Why on earth would you need to address your parent by an official title? It was almost like the kids on Leave it to Beaver saying “Yes sir” and “No sir” to their father. Was the family some kind of military troop, with ranks and titles? I argued (as best I could, using my five- or six- or seven-year-old vocabulary) that it was more egalitarian, more fair, for everyone in the family to go by a name.
Thus, when I was forced to explain myself, to give reasons, I sounded like the weirdos and brats on television. But these were not the original reasons, or the main reasons. The real reason was—just because.
I had no trouble defending myself. I wasn’t ashamed. And yet, as I grew older, I avoided telling people about it unless I had to. When we worked on memoirs in sixth grade, I wrote stories that were almost entirely true except in the stories I called my parents Mom and Dad. I wasn’t ashamed, but always having to explain myself was too much trouble, too much work.
And then, in seventh grade—praise God!—we read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, one of the most revered fathers in fiction, almost the Platonic ideal of The Father—and his kids called him Atticus! Insofar as I was in a near-constant battle to make myself understood, this was a sweet victory. But beyond that, I felt a kinship with this family. The Finches were good people, decent people. Not exactly “normal” (certainly not by the standards of Jim Crow-era Alabama) but they weren’t brats and they weren’t weirdos, at least not in a bad way.
In class, kids asked the same kinds of questions they had been asking me for years. “Why do they call him Atticus? Why are they allowed to do that? Is he their real father?” The teacher offered possible explanations. Perhaps, having no mother, the children did not have a traditional upbringing. Or maybe it revealed something about Atticus Finch’s views on equality. These were fine suggestions, but I knew that the answer, ultimately, was that’s just how it is in their family. Just as it is in mine.
When I grew up and had my own children, I had no plan, no agenda. I never made a choice for them to call me by my name. Sure, I had a lifetime of experience telling me it was perfectly acceptable for them to do so, but also a lifetime of constantly having to explain myself. In some ways it would be simpler, easier—and maybe it would be kind of nice—for them to say Mama, Dada.
And, when they were babies first learning to talk, they did. Then, as toddlers, they learned to say my name. I came to realize that my name is quite similar to Daddy, so it was a perfectly natural, perfectly smooth progression from Dada to Dah-dee to Dah-ee to Dah-nee. (My own mother’s name, Myla, does not sound a lot like Mama but it has, as the kids say, the same energy.) They started calling my wife, their mom, by her name too. No matter how much we modeled saying Mommy and Daddy, these kids were not fooled. They heard us saying Wendy and Danny to each other, and the jig was up.
How do you get your kids to call you Mom or Dad? What do you do when they first pronounce your name? Do you scold them, punish them, tell them it’s unacceptable? Is that why kids grow up almost afraid to speak their parents’ names?
Without my pushing very hard in one direction or the other, my children seemed naturally inclined to use my name, to call their mom and me by the same names we call each other. I wonder if, without realizing it, I somehow signaled to them that they should do this. My wife and I joke that it must be in my genes. Ultimately, the explanation—as in seventh grade English class—is that there is no explanation. That’s just the way it is in our family.