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How can I get my toddler to stop calling me by name?

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Dear Dr. Markham,

I watch another little boy two days a week, he is 3 years old and my son, who is almost 18 months absolutely adores him. But in the last month my son has started to call me by name, just like the little boy I watch. He calls me mama too,about half the time, but the other half, its 'Jessi' At first, I just ignored it, thinking he would eventually drop it and call me mama, but its gotten more consistent. Its not a super big deal. I am not upset about it, I just don't want him to call me by name. Its special that he can call me mama and no one else can! So I am not sure how to handle it. If I should just keep ignoring it, or just gently correct him. Or talk to him about it, I just don't want to make it a big deal or some sort of battle. But I would be so sad if he called me Jessi more and more and soon dropped mama, instead of the other way around!

Any advice would be much appreciated!
Also, he is very verbal for his age, so he talks a lot and understands a lot -answers questions, puts together 3-5 word sentences, gets personal pronouns correct, etc. just as a gauge as to where he is verbally, if that makes a difference in how to 'handle' this.

Thank you


Your son sounds adorable. He just wants to be like his older friend. When my son was your little guy's age, my mother visited. My son began calling me Laura instead of Mommy, echoing her. Of course, in that case she went home at the end of the week and he went back to calling me Mommy.

A smart 18 month old is trying hard to figure out the rules of the world. He thinks a three year old knows those rules. Studies show, in fact, that if your rules and the peer group rules conflict, he is likely to go with the peer rules on things like social customs, which is how immigrant groups become assimilated and kids begin listening to music their parents can't fathom.

You are absolutely right not to turn this into a power struggle. I always advise parents to avoid power struggles except over very important issues, like safety. This is only important because you feel strongly about it; many parents wouldn't mind their child calling them by their first name. Also, your son is experimenting with independence, which is age-appropriate, and you don't want to discourage that.

On the other hand, ignoring it doesn't give your son the information he needs, which is that it is appropriate for his friend to call you by your name, but that you want him to call you Mama. Luckily, he is verbal and can understand this idea. So your goal is to teach him this social "rule" without making it into a big deal.

You might start by pointing out that both boys have Mamas, and encouraging the three year old to greet his own mom by calling her Mama. When the three year old's mom arrives to pick him up, say "Your mama is here!"to him. Then say to your son, "And where's YOUR Mama?! That's right, I'm right here!" as you give him a hug. This makes clear to your son that "Everyone has a Mama that is their own special Mama" and that the social rule is that we only call our own Moms by this special name.

When you see other kids with their moms, you can point out that they call their mothers a special name that only they can use with her, whether it is Mama, Mommy, etc.

Reading with him is another way to reinforce this. You can show him mothers and children in books and says "That's his Mama!" It's also great if you can make up conversation for book characters, or his stuffed animals, in which mothers and children interact and the kids call their moms "Mama."

Finally, when your son calls you by your name, you can say directly "Did you call me Jessi? That's my name, so other people call me Jessi. But YOU are my son, so you get to call me MAMA! It's your special name for me. Only kids get to call their moms MAMA. I LOVE to hear you say MAMA because only you get to call me MAMA!" Then hug him. Never be negative about him calling you by name, just gently point out how much you love to hear him call you Mama. You will have to repeat this a few times, but over time he will begin calling you Mama more and more.

And of course, anytime he calls you Mama, reward him with a big hug and tell him how happy you are to be his Mama and how much you love to hear him say Mama to you!

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