For Parents

Amma, Appa, Mom, Dad? What do Indian-American kids call their parents? In the process of working on the manuscript for my forthcoming picture book, The Happiest Tree, about a clumsy child who learns yoga, I had to answer a question from my editor–would the young girl in the story call her parents “Mom” and “Dad” or would she use more traditional terms in an Indian language? After some thought, I decided that for this story, Mom and Dad would work fine. I didn’t want to ground this family in any particular region of India, and a more traditional name would surely do that. Many children, I rationalized, do use the American terms.

Then I was assailed by doubt. I no longer have a small child. What if there had been some vast sociological change in the 17 years since I joined the “new parent” ranks? I decided I’d better do some research. So I asked the members of the Sawnet listserv, “If you have little kids, or know people who do, what are these kids calling their parents?”

I received 35 replies (5 on the listserv, and the rest backchannel). Here is the list of terms they contained: Amma/Appa, Ma/Dad, Amma/Dad, Mommy/Daddy, Mom/Dad, Mama/Papa, Mamma/Papa, Mummy/Papa, Ammi/Abba, Mama/Daddy, Mummy/Daddy, Mama/Dada, Amma/Dada, Mama/Baba, Mummy/Baba, Ammi/Papa, Aai/Baba, Amma/Nanna.

But many of the women who responded also wrote about the variability in the way their children used these terms, and how early on (e.g., early pre-school years) the children began to make decisions about the useability of terms for their parents at home (i.e. while speaking to their parents) and at school or with non-Indian friends (i.e. while talking about their parents). Here are some examples:

Papa/Mamma when speaking to parents, Daddy/Mommy when speaking to others Amma/Mommy interchangeably Daddy when speaking to father, Appa while speaking to others (this was the reverse of the more commonly cited switches) More than one woman wrote about children using Indian-language terms till preschool, but Mommy and Daddy after that.

A few messages mentioned that two children in the same family used different names for their parents. E.g., Amma and Dada, Mommy and Daddy. One mother said her second child changes from Mama to Mommy, and Dada to Daddy. The child seems to be trying the use of different names.

I didn’t ask, but many volunteered information on what children call their grandparents, and other relatives–this is not organized in any way, it’s just what people wrote in.

Chickamma and Chickappa…similarly for Doddamma, Ajja, Tata, Ajji 
TaTa/Thatha and Paatti 
Dadi or Dadima 
Bauji or Babuji.

All right, there you have it. A skewed sample, no question. No way to draw any conclusions. But it helped me that many people said Mom and Dad or Mommy and Daddy were common default choices, and so I decided to stay (for that one book) with my initial instinct. In another story, with a different fictional family, I might make a different choice.

But the whole thing reminded me in an odd way of Amy Tan’s essay, Mother Tongue, about the various “Englishes” she grew up with. Those of us who live in more than one cultural domain do this all the time, after all. We use the terms that the people around us are most likely to understand. It seems to me that in this very basic interaction with the adults most important to them, these children of Indian-American immigrant families are also in the process of formulating practical, everyday working decisions, so they can make themselves understood in the realms they inhabit.

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