Don’t Call Me “Mom”!

Published on September 15, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


A friend of mine who is a special education advocate, and who also happens to be the mother of a teenager with a disability, brought to my attention a few years ago that she finds it offensive when school district staff refer to her, and other mothers, as “mom.”  As an example, during an IEP Team Meeting, someone will say, right in front of the mother of the student in question “well, mom says she’s not seeing that at home,” or “we didn’t want to implement that goal until we’d talked to mom,” or more pointedly “mom, what do you think?”

I’ll be candid, at first I thought she was, perhaps, being overly sensitive.  Of course, usually when I have that reaction to someone telling me that something is offensive, it’s because the person is pointing out something that I, myself, have done and never thought was wrong before.  And me being me, instead of just letting it go, chalking it up to a difference of opinion, I argued my point.  (This is really one of my more charming personality traits; just ask my husband.)

I needed to convince her that she was wrong, that there was no offense in this:  “well, in all honesty, they have lots and lots of IEP meetings, sometimes several a day, and they probably are just having a hard time remembering all of the mothers’ names” I said.

“That’s my point,” she said, “it’s a common courtesy, and I’m not THEIR mother, I find it offensive and belittling.  What if you were in a meeting and you couldn’t remember the other lawyer’s name, would you just call them ‘lawyer’?'”

I tried a different angle.  “Well, sometimes it may be that they’re used to using that term because they might be discussing cases in more public places or in the hallways or something, and they don’t want to use the family’s name for privacy reasons.  So they are probably just accustomed to saying to each other, you know, ‘hey, the mom on that case with the child we discussed yesterday called back and she consents to the testing.’  I mean, I could see that.  They’re just used to saying it that way and it comes out like that at the IEP meetings.”

I was sure I’d proven the point, and of course, demonstrated how very, very sensitive I am.  See?  Charming, right?

“Okay, I have no problem with that,” she responded, “saying ‘the mom’ is fine, not great, but better than ‘mom.’  Better would be to use my actual name, which is clearly written on the records sitting right in front of them at the meeting!”

When she has a point, she REALLY has a point, this friend of mine.  So, we left it that I would consider what she said and she would consider what I said and we’d both think about it.

Ever since then, I have heard parents called “mom” or “dad” by teachers and administrators so often that I can’t believe it.  And as I’ve tried listening to it through my friend’s ears, I have bristled more and more over time.  I’ve become convinced that it IS belittling and dismissive, even though I really don’t believe most people intend for it to come off that way.  Start listening for it, and I bet you’ll agree.

Words have power.  What message does it send parents when the special education team doesn’t bother to try to call them by their name?  The subtext is that the school staff see all parents of children with disabilities as ubiquitous and interchangeable.  Which can’t help but make them wonder if they see children with special needs the same way.

It’s an intriguing subject, one on which I would really welcome comments.  And no, it’s NOT because I’m trying to prove my friend wrong; on this one, she’s absolutely right!

6 Responses to Don’t Call Me “Mom”!

  1. charles
    September 15th, 2009 | 9:08 pm

    that has always been a particular pet peeve of mine, being compartmentalized by the caregiver/teacher/carsalesman/whatever. It smacks of salesmanship: I’m not invested in this problem, but I know you are–I have the upper hand here.

    Your thoughts are well warranted Jen, there are perfectly acceptable times for this to happen. More often than not, when someone says “Dad, what do you think…?” I lose a little respect for them, which is I think exactly the opposite of their intention.

  2. Ruby in Montreal
    September 15th, 2009 | 9:56 pm

    Another great insight, Jen! We did experience this in the early phases of special ed, but as we got very much involved with the school and contributed actively to our son’s education we developed a positive relationship with the staff. I do think that it is often as you say: professionals don’t mean to belittle parents & just don’t realize this is what they are doing.

    Let me put this to you: is there a parallel in a team whose members insist on calling the parents “Mr” or “Mrs” when they are all on a first name basis with one another? Is there not a certain sense of the staff being on the inside and the parents on the outside?

    This is a scenario that we have lived as well, and to be honest I think I almost felt better being called “mom.” While using the family name is at least identifying the specific person rather than lumping all mothers or fathers together, it seems to go along with a more distant and formal relationship, in which the staff set themselves up as the professionals whose job it is to inform parents and tell them how things must be done. Parents may be addressed with a formal courtesy, but it comes off as a necessary courtesy that is forced rather than a gracious welcoming of the parents and their input.

    When I have been called “Mrs” I have rarely been included voluntarily in the IEP team, but have instead been presented a preformed plan that I was simply expected to sign. The meeting was thus not a team meeting at all. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that many parents feel a meeting so conducted is more of a show of the school’s might – all of the staff lumped together at one end of the table and the parents at the other end as though they were facing the Inquisition.

    Things were perhaps simpler when professional relationships between adults were all more formal, when colleagues were not on a first name basis with one another no matter how closely they worked together. But, we live in a different era and we must adjust our professional practices to the current times.

    When I worked in chronic care I took part in a committee that developed a patient’s bill of rights. It underlined the resident’s right to be called by the name of his own choosing – whether that was a first name, Mr. X, or even a nickname.

    Perhaps special education teams ought to think of asking parents how they would like to be addressed, rather than adopting a single form and applying it to everyone, assembly line style. We are all different people with different preferences. It is such a simple thing to ask and take note of a name; certainly this is very little to ask of team members.

    IEP meetings are for a large number of parents rather stressful, as they struggle to protect their children’s rights and to help the school do its best to provide the children with a good education. Starting off on the right foot by making the parent feel welcome and respected is likely to yield much better results for everyone concerned.


  3. Elise
    September 16th, 2009 | 8:08 am

    Having been both a parent of designated children (15 years) and a parent memeber for over a decade I have sat in on numerous IEP metings and been to numerous program reviews. I never take offense at what I am called. If my children are getting the services they need and everyone is heeding my concerns then who cares what they call you, “mom” or “Mrs”. They could alternatively call you every respectful name and not do what is necessary for your child. Remember it is not about you but about your child.

  4. John X
    September 17th, 2009 | 3:05 pm

    Interesting issue – my 2 cents? I have a sister who is a research nurse and she works with very sick children.
    She always refers to the mothers as “mom” – it’s really more of an elevated title. “Mom” is the one who knows and needs to be keep in the know.
    When she addresses someone as “Mom” she is asking that person who is the authority because she is the “mom”.

  5. JonsMom
    September 18th, 2009 | 1:30 pm

    I agree with Ruby and John here. I really like the way John puts it – that “mom” is an elevated title. I do feel more a part of the team than when I’m referred to as “Mrs.”. I feel the rules and forms are formal enough, there’s no reason there can’t be a little friendliness.

  6. CE Greco
    February 20th, 2010 | 6:47 pm

    I admit, I did not read every reply but I must share that most of the time, not always, when the district refers to MOM or DAD, it is not in the intention to get services but to highlight a parent issue…

    I think it is rude and in no other arena would it it suffice other than WAITER Bailiff, Officer, Dr. and Judge and even that is not polite..

    Can you imagine
    Hey “Aspie, adhder, nonverbal, sensory kiddo, rsp teach, decision maker,
    liar, data cheater, number cruncher, evil doer two sided unioner.. these are the ones entrusted to teach social appropriateness?

    Come On, they know our names..this attitude further creates an us vs. them

    Take the time to learn the name. It shows you have read the data, collected it accurately and are following the IEP.

    It has never been said in a positive light in our experience..

Trackback URL

Leave a Reply