Ellen Freeman Roth                      

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June 28, 2008

Not your father's nicknames when teens talk to parents

"Mom and Dad" and "Mr. and Mrs." are so passť. Call them Big Anne, P-Money, and G-Dog. Their kids do. So do their kids' friends.

Among some teenagers and twentysomethings, "Mom and Dad" are giving way to slangy, quirky nicknames.

Sometimes the nicknames spring up impromptu. Other times they migrate from kids' shorthand references for their parents into pet names. The simplest are variations on first and last names.

Consider "Shar Shar," the name a daughter's friend gave to Sharon Levitan in Weston.

" 'Shar Shar' sounds like I'm a cockapoo or something," Levitan lamented. "If they came up with something a little more mature, I wouldn't mind, since with these kids a nickname means you're endeared to them."

The change in the way these children address their parents probably stems from baby boomers' less authoritarian child-raising practices. Technology is a factor, too, given the offhand style that people use in instant messages and cellphone texts. The Internet has made people comfortable using names that are not their own - in particular, the frequent use of screen names online has made naming a bit more elastic, said Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Bellevue University in Nebraska who is a former president of the American Name Society, a group that studies the cultural significance of names. Screen names, he said, "might have made people freer to think of the same person addressed by multiple names, and that's what nicknaming is."

Lisa and Michael Josephson of Old Greenwich, Conn., are Mama Jo and Papa Jo, names coined by their daughter's friend. Timothy Sweet of Watertown began calling his father "Sweet Man" a dozen years ago on a Boy Scout trip. Sweet likewise has nicknames for his friends' parents, including "Glenzo" for Glen and "Pina" for Patricia.

Sarah Switlik, 18, a Babson College student from Princeton, N.J., said her mother, Pam, wasn't thrilled at first when Sarah called her P-Money. "Initially my mom said, 'Really, Sarah,' exasperatedly. Now when she's texting she signs off, 'Love, P$.' It makes her feel like one of the girls."

Walter Chick's sons renamed him "Atahualpa" (pronounced Atta-who-all-pah) when they were learning about the Incan sovereign. "I thought it was pretty bizarre," said Chick, who lives in Winchester.

But the name grew on him, so now he's Atahualpa - or sometimes Dada-hualpa or just Hualpa. "They'll call, 'Hey, Atahualpa!' and I'll come over."

Caroline Gaulin, 22, of Greenwich, Conn., yelled "My bad, G-Dog!" to her father, Dan, during a basketball game to make light of an error she'd made. "After that we started calling him G-Dog," she said. "Now he loves it."

That's not the case for all parents. Barbara Gross of Wellesley, a fund-raising professional who has two daughters in their early 20s, doesn't have a nickname, and she doesn't want one.

"It's really important for young people to know that they have role models who have more life experience and wisdom under their belts, so there's a polite and respectful distance," she said. "To me, a nickname connotes a friendliness that crosses that line."

Robert Reifsnyder, a psychologist and family therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital's Department of Child Psychiatry, said nicknames are healthy because it means children are inviting parents into their world.

"One of the reasons they might do it and we didn't is they've been brought up to give their opinions and speak their minds," Reifsnyder said. It's also a way for children to shift the relationship as they get older, he said. "Maybe they experience a little more power or equality by the process of naming you."

Katherine Donahue, 16, of Weston said many of her friends refer to their parents by nicknames, "but only a few of us do it to their faces." When two friends were visiting, she herself used "Big Anne" in frustration within earshot of her mother. Big Anne turned around quickly.

"All three jaws dropped, almost in suspense," recalled Katherine's mother, Anne. "I tried to get the better of her and her friends and said, 'What was that? Big Anne? I love it! I've never had a nickname and always wanted one. Thanks!' " Donahue said her daughter and daughter's friends now affectionately call her Big Anne.

Her son, however, thinks it's disrespectful, so he and his friends haven't adopted the nickname. "He does not approve," she said.