Referring to Parents in YA


I had a minor but interesting issue as I finished some edits on what has to be the eighth revision of my middle-grade/YA novel – how do I have the narrator refer to her own parents – as Mom and Dad and only Mom   and Dad, by their first names, by their first and last names, by Mrs. and Mr. Smith, or by a mix of some or all of these? I decided to consult  both the books on my children’s shelves and the Internet for guidance.

I found that this decision is partly affected by the POV from which  it is written – first person, third person limited or omniscient.

In first person POV, where the POV character refers to themselves as “I”, a character is not going to think of his or her Mom and Dad as Rita or Fred, or Mrs. and Mr. Green. Thus the general  convention, and probably best choice, is to use “Mom” and “Dad” or “my  mom” and “my dad.” Note these are different choices and do affect the style of the book. Some writers do not include the “my” and therefore dialogue and action read like this:

“I don’t want you to go out tonight,” Mom said.

Mom went over to the TV.

Other writers include the “my” and the dialogue and action would read like this”

“I don’t want you to go out tonight,” my mom said.

My mom went over to the TV.

Some writers use a combination of both and drop the “my” when referring to Mom or Dad in dialogue tags, but include the “my” in  action.

I don’t want you to go out tonight,” Mom said.

My mom went over to the TV.

Personally, I prefer the inclusion of the “my”, as it makes it a bit more clear that the character is Mom only in reference to the POV character and in fact likely has another name and existence beyond being the character’s Mom. When only Mom or Dad is used I feel like it makes it seem like the POV character is so self-absorbed they only see their parent in that role, but that is totally personal taste. Not using the “my” can be tidier, and makes it less of a mouthful, which makes it seem less repetitive when a character is referred to many times in a scene.

In omniscient POV, where the writer writes from the perspective of many characters at the same time, it is more conventional  to use “her mother”, “Rita Green”, or “Mrs. Green” depending on whose  POV one is in. In a sliding omniscient POV, where the writers slides  temporarily into one character’s mind and then into another, it is common to use the name that the character would use to refer to the  mother or father. However because the narrative distance is generally  greater in omniscient POV and there are times when the writer pans out and is writing more as the “fly on the wall”, it is not uncommon to see  the mother or father referred to by their full name or as a mix of both “her mother” and Rita Green, or just Rita, even when in the child’s POV.

When it comes to writing from third person limited POV, the choices become much more difficult. Theoretically, the writer is writing in the head of the POV character, and thus should refer to the character’s parents as that character would. So that would mean using Mom or Dad or Abbey’s mom or dad, or Abbey’s mother or father.

However, it can get repetitive to continually say Abbey’s mom and Abbey’s dad if the parent is featured prominently in a scene. It also makes the parent characters seem like they have no personality or existence outside the POV of the narrator.

Although I cannot (unfortunately) find the original post, Author! Author! blogger Anne Mini apparently said that using the same parental pronoun throughout a book is repetitive and boring and that for the purposes of rhythm, it is better to occasionally switch it out for the person's name. I would also suggest that it is also helpful for clarity in a busy scene, and ensures that the reader at least knows the parent’s name, which is helpful for the purposes of differentiating them slightly as a person beyond their role as a parent. It actually bugs me a bit if I don’t have a clue what the parent’s name is at the end of the book and it somehow makes the character seem more childish.

When this observation was placed on a site for writers, it was met with a fair degree of opposition, suggesting that it confuses people and that nobody would use their mother’s name when thinking about her. While I get their concerns, I think it is a matter of personal choice in third person, and if the parent is in a lot of scenes then using their name some of the time is okay. It does add a bit of narrative distance though so it should be a choice that is made carefully.

In my scan of books on the bookshelves of my children, in the books I could even find parents (which is a whole other blog post), the  practices were completely varied. This is what I found:

First Person POV Books

just Mom and Dad – 1

just my mom and my dad – 1

Third Person Limited POV Books

just Mom and Dad – 3

just his mother/Jack’s mother – 1

mix of her mother/Jenny’s mother/mother’s name – 4

Omniscient POV

mix of her father/Sara’s father/father’s name - 1

So my conclusion is that it is largely a matter of personal preference, being consistent within a single piece of work and understanding what implications are associated with each choice.

Photo Credit: Elk City Oklahoma via Compfight