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Why Some Kids Use Their Parents’ First Name



On a 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch, the family’s eldest son, Greg, decides that, as a freshly minted high schooler, he ought to be treated like a man. When he asks for his own bedroom, his parents acquiesce. When he asks for money to buy new clothes, they give it to him. When he asks to skip the family camping trip, they say okay.

But when he sits down at the breakfast table and calls his parents by their first name—“Morning, Carol! Morning, Mike!”—well, that’s a bridge too far. “Now, look, Greg,” his father answers with a wag of his finger. “Calling your parents by their first names might be the fad these days, but around here, we are still ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ to you!”

If calling your parents by their first name was a fad, it never really went away. More than 50 years later, the phenomenon of children calling their parents by their first name still exists—and still is met with finger-wagging disapproval, and still gets called a “growingtrend. Several friends of mine have moms and dads who aren’t “Mom” and “Dad,” and pretty much everyone I spoke with for this story or told about it could call to mind one or two examples of their own. A small minority of kids has always done this, and likely always will. Why does their behavior lead to agitation and even outrage?

To be clear, first-naming parents is aberrant on a global scale. Linguists and anthropologists find that children in nearly every culture around the world, and speaking nearly every language, have specific words for “mom” and “dad.” In fact, across a striking number of those languages, even those with no historical or etymological relation to one another, the words sound very much the same. In Chinese, Swahili, and Swedish, for example, the terms for “mother” are, respectively, mama, mama, and mamma. One theory holds that this is because M is one of the few consonant sounds that infants are capable of making, but that alone does not explain the continuing use of mom and dad (or their equivalents) by older kids, which, experts told me, is also nearly universal across cultures.

Mom and dad are useful terms, Denise Bodman, a lecturer on social and family dynamics at Arizona State University, told me: Healthy families have well-defined roles, and parental designators can help keep them straight in the same way that titles such as Doctor and Professor do in classrooms. In that sense, kids who call their parents by their first name are altering conventional relationships. Kids might also use their parents’ first name to create emotional distance or lash out.

Kids may also pick up the practice from their friends or even learn it from their parents—who may have grown up on a first-name basis with their parents. Some parents insist on using first names in order to establish equality among family members, or to establish “friend” relationships with children, or for some other reason. The young son of Elon Musk and Grimes, for example, refers to his mother by her given first name instead of “Mom,” because, as she puts it, “I don’t identify with that word.” Richard Warshak, a psychologist who writes books on family issues related to divorce, told me he has found that parents sometimes end up weaponizing first names. They might refer to an ex-spouse that way when talking with shared children, in an effort to weaken the corresponding parental ties. (The kids may then imitate this behavior without realizing what they’re doing and why.) Or they’ll try to force a child to call the other parent by their first name and reserve “Mom” or “Dad” for their new partner.


In general, though, the practice of using first names for parents is not a source of harm, Bodman told me. It may be evidence of the erosion of clear roles within a family, or it may be evidence that a family is so assured in its roles that the reinforcement isn’t necessary, or it may be neither. For many kids, it’s nothing more than a simple way to assert their independence, kind of like Greg Brady tried to. That motivation will never lose its appeal to American teenagers, or its capacity to shock their parents. It’s a fad that never ends or grows.

For people who don’t first-name their parents, the behavior thus slots into a special social category: kind of weird and rarely seen, yet immediately recognizable. We all seem to know at least one kid who does it, just like we know at least one guy who insists on wearing shorts even in the winter, or who totes around a hot-sauce bottle and douses all of his food with it. If these practices are jarring, it’s in part because they force us to consider the autopilot practices we take for granted. Why do I call her “Mom”? Why do I call him “Dad”? Why am I wearing pants? It’s easier not to think too hard about these things, and so we don’t—until some kid calls his mother “Carol,” and we cringe.

Source: The Atlantic

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