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What’s in a (Parent) Name?

A few weeks ago I was at Music Together class with my daughter. We were singing a song where a typical verse went like this:

“Who’s that tapping at the window?/Who’s that knocking at the door?

Mommy’s tapping at the window?/ Daddy’s knocking at the door.”

(Makes you think of the toddlers who lock their parents out, doesn’t it?)

After it was over, my daughter turned to me and said “That’s song’s silly.”

“Why?” I asked, though I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.

“It doesn’t have a Mama in it.”

And indeed it didn’t. Though most of the world thinks of “Mommy” and “Mama” as interchangeable, for children like her who have both, they’re not exactly.

Call one of her moms the wrong one and you will get either a completely blank look or an earnest correction. From early on she would assign various unnamed mothers in her books, human and animal, one or the other and stick to her designations firmly. She’s also quite concerned to know which one the various parents-to-be in her life are going to pick.

She’s been told, and basically understands, that they are just “parent names” and that all mothers and fathers get to choose a specific one like “mommy” or “mama,” and that doesn’t mean they have different roles as parents. She even describes herself as, variously, “mommy,” “mama,” “daddy,” and “dafu” (a Chinese father name used by one of her friend’s dads) in relation to various of her dolls and stuffed animals. But that flexibility is fairly new, and somewhat tenuous. As with any three-year-old, her own family is the norm for her.

Now, clearly, it’s no revelation that kids from anything other than a one mother-one father family don’t see their family structures reflected in stories, songs, school exercises, etc. very often, and they feel it. Certainly I think the day will not be far off when she points out to us that despite the variety in her social circle, the families in most of her books have one mom and one dad.

But what struck me about my exchange with her over the song was that the parent names angle could provide a fairly easy way to be a lot more inclusive in certain situations without interrupting things with extended awkward clauses like “except some kids instead have two moms or two dads . . .” or having to poll the room to see exactly what everyone’s situation is.

Not that kids shouldn’t be explicitly presented with the idea of family structure variety—they certainly should—but in passing cases like this music class, it can get a little silly. In those cases, perhaps just adding more parent names to our patter could go a long way. Nothing PC or obsessive. Just mixing it up a little.

In fact, it has the extra benefit of being a little more comfy to those from a heterosexual two-parent family who have a mama or a papa. I’ve heard from one grown woman who had a papa who says that she was fairly annoyed by the “daddy” hegemony, and I know mamas who feel that Hallmark is unaware of their existence.

Meanwhile, for the kids for whom these terms are interchangeable, it likely won’t even register when they are varied.

The other option is to back off the specific names all together. That makes sense in a lot of cases. I’ve taken to trying, when talking to any kid (including to my own about other families), to using the more generic terms “mom” and “dad” or “mother” and “father” until I know what they call their parents. But aside from not scanning as well, in a song like the above, and probably other cases, going generic doesn’t quite get away from the idea that there’s one of each.

Anyhow, before I had mused about it anywhere near this extensively, I mentioned my exchange with my daughter to the music teacher, who acknowledged that she’d had concerns about those mommy/daddy songs too. This session, she’s been singing a different song that mentions parents by name, and she’s given it four verses—Mommy, Mama, Daddy, and Papa. With that little chance, many kids have a better chance of pulling out of the four verses a configuration that matches their experience.

It doesn’t cover everyone, certainly (especially those not being raised by their parents), and it’s no rigid template to follow. But it’s a good, easy start. A little creativity in that vein could probably go a long way in other settings.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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