For many families, especially those with only biological children, there are no questions about what the children call their parents. Parents are mom or dad (or some variation of that name). It’s so natural that we don’t even address it. But for families that are formed a different way, this can be a lot trickier. And for foster families, especially, there are a lot of considerations that impact what a foster child will call their foster parent. Listed below are some factors that play a role here, why it matters, and some guidelines for tackling these subjects, both with kids in the home, extended family members and friends, and birth families.

What factors impact what a foster child will call his foster parent?

What your foster kids will call you can depend on a lot of things, and it may change over time as they become more comfortable in your home and as their case changes. Here are a few factors:

How old are they? Obviously infants or non-verbal kids aren’t going to call you anything, at least at first. But in my experience, younger children (toddlers through elementary age) are more likely to call me mom or mommy than an older child. However, older children will often call me by my first name in private, and call me mom in public. This helps them to feel normal, at least among those who don’t know they are in foster care.

Are there are other kids in the home? What do they call you? If most of the other children in your home are calling you mom or dad, your foster child is more likely to do the same thing. If others are calling you by your first name, or some other agreed upon name (Aunt Cathy or Papa Joe, for example), your foster child may feel more comfortable with that name.

Is this their first time in foster care? It’s a sad reality that some kids bounce around between foster homes, or they are reunified with their parents just to come back into foster care later. In those cases, what your foster child called their previous foster parents may have some influence on what they want to call you.

How do you refer to yourself? What do you tell them to call you? Obviously, you can influence what your foster kids call you by how you introduce yourself and how you refer to yourself when talking to them.

Just be careful to take your cues from your kids. And most importantly, don’t force them to use a name if they are uncomfortable with it (i.e. calling yourself mom if your foster child has shown no indication to call you that).

Why all of this even matters

Every single person and I (respective in the world of foster care including therapists, social workers, and experienced foster parents), has always said the same thing when it comes to determining what your foster child to call you: let the child lead. No matter what the details of the individual child’s story, she is the one most affected by the situation, and her attachment and comfort level and emotional healing should be paramount.

It’s natural for kids to want to identify their primary caregivers, and our cultural norms dictate that the person who performs that role is called mommy or daddy. This is not about any biological or legal definition—the person who does the everyday work of feeding and clothing and providing for the child is typically the parent. This is what is “normal” in our culture, and many kids want to feel normal and have their situation look similar to everyone else’s situation.

For kids in foster care, especially, this desire is even stronger. They are constantly reminded that their situation is not the norm, that not everyone else is not living with their birth parents. For many foster kids, choosing to call their foster parent mom or dad is about this feeling of normalcy. Even for older children, who may choose not to call their foster parent mom or dad, will often behave differently in public. Many of my kids have called me mom at school, or the park, or at an event with friends. In the same way, they refer to the other kids living in our home as brothers and sisters, no matter what the connection to our family. This is normalizing for them.

It’s important to remember that kids don’t always have the same issues we do about having only one mom or one dad. As a mom, I would be hurt if my son walked around calling lots of other people mommy. That’s my role, and it’s a title that’s important to me. But these are my hang-ups, not his. And I have to be careful that I don’t enforce what I want on him because of my feelings.

An attachment bond with a daily caregiver is healthy, and it is necessary for a child’s development. This does not mean that they don’t still have an attachment to their birth family. It also doesn’t mean that they will be unable to form a solid attachment to their birth family if or when they are reunified with their parents.

For these reasons, if your foster child wants to call you mom or dad, let her. It is healthy and natural, and while it may hurt their birth parent’s feelings, the decision to address this should always be about what is best for the child.

But, a word of caution. Many kids, especially those who have been in unsafe or unstable situations for a while, have had to play the role of caregiver, sometimes to their parents. They may be extremely sensitive to their birth parent’s feelings, and they may be defensive, or even resentful, about your role in their life. Trying to force an attachment or bond by calling yourself mommy or daddy, or insisting they call you that, does no one any good. It is confusing for the child; it can be unnecessarily antagonistic for the birth parents, who may see this as a sign that you are trying to replace them in their child’s life. This is why it is so important to allow the child to decide what he wants to call you.

Some guidelines to help facilitate these conversations

So, with all of this in mind, how should you proceed? What are some guidelines you can use to help make this process smoother for everyone?

Build a relationship with your foster child’s parent. The more solid relationship you have with the child’s biological parent, the more you can help minimize any drama that might occur if the child decides to call you mom or dad. This gives you a platform to reassure them of their role in the child’s life and to explain that a child’s desire to call you mom does not detract from that. Remember that this can be a painful thing for a biological parent to hear, so try and demonstrate understanding when you talk about it. Even with all of their issues, I’ve never met a biological parent who didn’t love their child.

Preempt the conversation with biological or adopted kids, extended family members, and friends. In my experience, my family and friends have just as many questions about what my foster child is calling me, and of course, this changes with each child. I try to go ahead and address it head-on, as this tends to avoid situations where someone is suddenly fumbling over their words because they don’t know which one to use.

Go ahead and address it as soon as it happens. If your foster child is calling you mom, and if you have a good relationship with your foster child’s parent, don’t be afraid to talk about this. At a minimum, it’s helpful to give your child’s social worker a heads-up.

Talk early to older kids about how to handle things in public. Shortly after my now-daughter was placed with me, we were at a doctor’s appointment, and a nurse naturally assumed I was her mother and referred to me as such. My daughter got very defensive and snapped, “She’s not my mom!” That exchange prompted a conversation we had later in a more private setting. I assured her that I wasn’t trying to take her mother’s place, but that I also wasn’t going to correct people in public because I didn’t think her story was anyone else’s business. She could always tell people whatever she wanted, but I wanted to protect her privacy and let her decide what to tell others. I learned from that experience that this was always something that was better to address early with older foster kids, before the situation (and resulting tensions), arose.

Don’t push a child to do something if they are not comfortable with it. This applies in both directions. If a child insists on calling a foster parent mom or dad, trying to force him to use a different name can actually be very hurtful as it underscores the differences between their family and other families. This is even truer in situations where there are other kids in the home calling the parent mom or dad. On the other hand, calling yourself mommy or daddy when the child hasn’t initiated that name can cause confusion and questions for the child at best, and at worst, can lead to defensive and barriers to the bond you are trying to form.

Navigating what your foster child should call you can feel a little tricky, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal. As long as you let the child take the lead and try to always keep his or her best interests in mine, you’ll do fine!