The educator knocks and Malik’s mother answers the door. They introduce themselves then move out to the backyard where Malik and his sister are playing in the sandbox. The educator sits down and says “So, Mom, is this one of Malik’s favorite things to do?”
Wait…did you notice anything wrong with this picture?
Using Parent’s Proper Names vs. “Mom” – Is this Important?
You might think that this is really no big deal, calling Malik’s mother “mom” instead of using her proper name. Why do we do this? Why do so many professionals settle on “mom” or “dad” during the EI visit, at the pediatrician’s office or the child care center? I think it’s probably just easier than remembering the parent’s name. I think we do this, too, because that’s how we view this adult we are working with – primarily in the role of parent or caregiver. We don’t know them well and have identified them in this category, even though they are likely to be many more things in their real life. For others of us, it’s just plain old habit.
A Show of Respect
I believe that using the parent’s proper name is a show of respect. Don’t you feel better when someone you meet remembers to use your name? It feels like it puts you and the other person on more equal footing, like you are important enough for them to remember who, not what, you are. It’s a tactic regularly used in sales and customer service to make customers feel appreciated and to build trust. Names are important.
How Would You Like To Be Addressed?
Do you usually ask parents how they prefer to be addressed? To be painfully honest, I didn’t ask this question for many years, and just made the assumption that I would use first names to help build a less formal relationship. It dawned on me (much too late) that not all families viewed our relationship as informal and in fact wanted to maintain boundaries that came with using Mr. or Mrs. I also realized that generational and cultural differences affected what parents and caregivers wanted to be called – this “ah-ha” moment came when I called a grandmother by her first name and she corrected me to call her Mrs. —. It also dawned on me that asking caregivers how they wanted to be addressed was a simple empower strategy because there is power in a name and they should have the right to choose what they’re called.
I’m Not Your Mom
One thing I didn’t do, even in my days as a young early interventionist, was call parents “mom” or “dad.” I did use those names when I was speaking to the child, like “give it to mama” or “where’s daddy?” but I always asked the parent what the child called him/her first. I’ve seen interventionists fail to do this over long periods of time, for instance calling the father “Daddy” when he’s actually “Papa.” Calling the mother “mom” always felt uncomfortable to me, even before I was a parent, because this person was not my mom and actually “belonged” to someone else. Once I became a parent, I realized that being called “mom” by other people felt even weirder. I usually speak up and say that calling me by my first name is fine. Some families might not feel comfortable requesting this, but if we gave them the chance, they just might.
Unfortunately, I’ve also heard professionals call parents “mom” or “dad” with an undercurrent of condescension, as if saying “you are just the parent, I am the expert.” We work hard in early intervention to build the parent-provider partnership so this is not an impression that we want to give. Using parent’s names, whatever they want to be called, is just one small thing we can do to let parents know that we respect and value their role in early intervention.
Three Quick Tips:
- Ask the parent how he/she wants to be addressed.
- Make an effort to remember and use the parent’s name.
- Ask about what names the child & family use to refer to parents, grandparents, and other important people.
What are your thoughts about this? What do you call parents and why? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.