Papa Sez by Todd Hunter-Gilbert Issue #6
Papa Sez
by Todd Hunter-Gilbert

Beyond Names and Roles - April 2003

Past Issues

What do people call you?

My name is Todd. When I was born, Todd was my middle name. Nobody used my first name. The crowd I ran with in Davis gave nicknames to everyone, so in that group I was something else. I used to say I'd answer to any name except Stephen (my given first name). Not that I don't like Stephen. It's just that I've never used it, so I think of it as my grandfather's and my uncle's name. When I married, as I hyphenated my name, I swapped the Todd and the Stephen to make life easier.

All of which is to say that I've spent some time thinking about what we call each other and what it means, at least to me.

When I was 18, my grandfather told me that I was an adult now, and it was time to stop calling him grandpa and start calling him by his real name. I was shocked, I'd never heard of such a thing. I've still not heard of it from anyone else. But it got me thinking about role-names and how we use them.

We started Quinn off using Mama and Papa (thus the byline I write under-- if I used Dad, this column might be called "The Dadventure"). He's picked up mom and dad from other kids, but he mostly sticks to what he hears from us.

But then we had grandparents visit and things got weird. Running a three-generational conversation was obviously confusing for Quinn, if not for the rest of us. A person who is mom to one person is grandma to another, and people's "names" shift with every sentence spoken and every time someone enters or leaves a room.

Maybe my grandfather had a point. But, if so, why wait until I was 18? I suppose the answer is that it's important to teach children to respect their elders (among many other things, of course). And while adults can generally show each other respect without the use of honorifics, such use makes things pretty clear for kids.

But Denise and I don't call each other mama and papa exclusively whenever Quinn is within hearing distance, so he hears us call each other D, T, Denise, and Todd. And he's at the mimicking stage. The first time this came up D was at the top of the stairs calling to me. Suddenly Quinn starts in, "T! T!! Teeeeeeeuhhhhhh!!!!!!" There was nothing to do except laugh.

Now, though he mostly uses mama and papa, he occasionally uses our actual names and our nicknames. It feels weird, I'll admit. The question that nags at me, however, is, "will this upset his development?"

To answer that, I started looking at when he used my name versus when he used papa. I found that in almost all cases he used my name after a period when we had been separated. When I walk in the door after a day at work. When he's several rooms away and calls to get my attention. Once, he was sitting on the floor next to me, but I was involved in discussion with others. Denise tells me he tried papa several times before switching to Todd, and Todd got my attention on the first try.

From this I glean that he has realized that using proper names startles us. It grabs us and makes us notice. All of which is true and isn't particularly hard to figure out. Is it harmful? He's at a stage where his parents are often struggling to get his attention. Voices can get raised and/or harsh. Fingers can get snapped and/or pointed. And, as I said, he's in the mimicking stage. He sometimes speaks loudly and/or harshly. He sometimes points and even tries to snap his fingers.

These are things that every child learns and then must learn to control. Quinn does them, I think, less than he might because he has a viable alternative. I think I'll let him keep it.

Be well.

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