Vocabulary to describe parents, parenthood, types of parents, and guardians.


What to call parents

– (noun) A male parent.

(verb) To become a father by causing a woman to produce a child. 

However this is less common.

  • “My father used to bring me to watch football every Sunday when I was a kid.”
  • “He’s fathered three children.”

– (noun) A Christian priest, especially a Roman Catholic or Orthodox priest.

  • “Is Father Chris giving a sermon this Sunday?”

– (informal noun) An endearing term for “father.”

  • “I’m going to play football with my dad this Sunday.”

Pa or Papa (informal noun)
– Considered old-fashioned according to the Cambridge Dictionary. However, I have heard these terms used quite often.

Pop (informal American term)

Old man
– (informal noun) Someone’s father or someone’s husband.

Although this would typically be considered an insult, it is also a term of endearment. To be honest, I have heard this term used both ways, so it is up to you to decide how to use it.

“Old man” can also be used to refer to an elderly man, a commanding officer in the military, a captain of a merchant ship or a warship, or a male amateur radio operator.

  • “The old man is bringing the family to the pub to celebrate Wally’s birthday.”

– (informal noun) A child’s word for “father.”

Unfortunately, this is also a sexual slang term and there are discussions about whether it is appropriate. Adults do not typically use this to refer to their actual fathers.

  • “Why don’t you show daddy what you did today?”

– (noun) A female parent.

  • “My mother got married when she was 25.”

– (verb) To treat a person with great care, love and protection – sometimes excessively. 

Although this may sound positive, it is usually used in a disapproving manner.

  • “You have to stop mothering your son. He’s already 30!”

Mum or Mom
– (informal noun) “Mother.”

“Mum”is more common in British English and “mom” is more common in American English.

  • “I don’t think my mum knows I have a boyfriend.”

Mummy” or Mommy
– (informal noun) A child’s word for “mother.”

  • “Is your mummy home?”

Ma or Mama (informal noun)
– These are considered old-fashioned but I still hear these terms used quite often.

Biological parent/mother/father or Birth parent/mother/father
– (noun) A parent who are related to the child by blood.

Using “biological” or “birth” to refer to a parent implies there is no close or personal relationship between the parent and child even though they are related by blood.

  • “Yesterday, my mother finally told me who my biological father is.”

Adoptive parent/mother/father
– (noun) People who have legally taken another person’s child as their own child.

  • “His biological mother gave him up to his adoptive parents when he was 9 months old.”

– (adjective) To describe the child that was taken in by adoptive parent(s).

  • “I found out I was adopted when my biological brother contacted my family.”

– (noun) Parent(s) who are not related by blood but by marriage.

“My stepfather was the one who raised me after my mum passed away.”


– (noun) The state or time of being a parent.

More specifically, these terms refer to the experience of raising a child. They can also be applied to parents that are not biologically related to the child, like adoptive parents or stepparents.

  • “Expecting parents are often unready for the responsibilities of parenthood. No matter how many books they’ve read.”

– (noun) The state of being a mother – synonym of “motherhood.”

This is usually used in association with pregnancy. “Maternity” is often used to create compound nouns, such as “maternity leave,” “maternity clothes” or “maternity ward.”

  • Maternity clothes can be really expensive so it’s better to buy them second-hand.”

– (noun) The fact or state of being a father – synonym of “fatherhood.”

This is usually used in association with the birth of a new child or biological relations. “Paternity” can also be used to create compound nouns, such as “paternity leave” or “paternity test.”

  • “How long is paternity leave?”

Types of parents

Single parent/mother/father
– (noun) Someone who has a child or children but no partner who lives with them.

Although this may be appropriately described, it is considered a disapproving term so be discreet when using this term.

  • “As a single parent, she’s had to rely on her extended family for help to raise her children.”

Primary parent
– (noun) The parent who has the most parenting time with a child after separation.

Primary carer/caregiver
– (noun) A synonym of “primary parent.”

These terms can also refer to caring for someone who has a chronic disease, a disability or a mental disorder, or an elderly person. “Primary carer” is a more common term in Australia when it comes to caring for children but is less colloquial than “single parent.”

  • “The primary carer may have sole parental responsibility of the child, but can also share custody and have equal shared responsibility with the other parent.”

Working parent/mother/father
– (noun) The parent who has a job and takes care of their children.

“Working parents” can be used to describe both parents who work.

  • “A flexible working schedule is important for working mothers.”

Stay-at-home parent/mother/father
– (noun) A parent who stays at home to take care of their children rather than going out to work.

Using this term usually implies that a decision was made for the purpose of looking after the children.

  • Stay-at-home dads are becoming quite common these days.”

– (noun) Someone who prefers to be at home and is considered rather disapproving. 

  • “Their son has become a real stay-at-home nowadays. He used to be so outgoing as a child.”

– (noun) A person who stays at home, takes care of the house and looks after the children if they have any.

Although a “homemaker” is typically unemployed, the term implies the importance and work that goes into creating a home for the family while their partner is the breadwinner of the house. Furthermore, a “homemaker” may not always have children and usually implies a woman, even though it can be used in a gender-neutral way.

  • “Male homemakers are often surprised at how fulfilling it can be.”

House husband or Housewife
– (noun) A spouse who stays at home and takes care of the house.

These terms can be used to indicate their marriage to the breadwinner or head of the house, but without the duties of a “homemaker.” Furthermore, a “house husband/housewife” may not always have children.

  • “Not all women want to stay at home and be housewives.”

Custody or Guardianship

– (noun) The legal right or care for someone or something.

This usually refers to the biological parent’s care of the child.

  • “The parents agreed to have shared custody of their children.”

– (noun) A person who has the legal right and responsibility of taking care of someone, usually a child, who cannot take care of himself or herself.

This person is often referred to as a “legal guardian.”

In everyday English, although a biological parent is technically a child’s guardian, specifically calling someone a “legal guardian” usually implies they are not the biological parent.

  • “The grandparents became her legal guardians when her father went to jail.”

– (noun) Someone who protects or defends something. However this has quite often been used to refer to animals or organisations.

– (noun) The state or duty of being a guardian.

– (adjective) Someone or something that is connected to the care of children, usually for a limited time, by someone who is not the child’s legal parent.

This is usually used with other words to make compound nouns.

Foster care 
– (noun) A system of looking after children – the temporary custody or guardianship for children whose biological parents are unable to look after them.

  • “Wally was in foster care for 5 years before he was adopted.”

Foster parent/father/mother
– (noun) A person who cares for the child for a limited time.

This is also known as a “foster carer.”

  • “Being a foster parent can be challenging but also highly rewarding.”

Other related vocabulary

Baby daddy
– (informal noun) The biological father of a woman’s child, especially if he is not in a relationship with her or actively raising the child. This is considered disapproving.

Although this has “daddy” in it, this term is usually used in relation to the child’s mother, not the child.

  • “I heard the mother’s baby daddy is a married man and has a family of his own.”

Father figure
– (noun) An older man who is treated like a father, especially by asking for his advice, help, or support.

This is usually a substitute for a biological father, and can include adoptive fathers, stepfathers, or even brothers, teachers and others.

  • “A lack of a father figure can have a negative effect on a child’s development.”

Helicopter parent
– (informal noun) Describes a parent who is closely involved with their child’s life, in an overprotective and excessive way. This is considered disapproving.

This is also known as a “cosseting parent” or a “cosseter,” but I think these terms are less common.

  • “A sign of a helicopter parent is when they do their children’s homework for them.”

Tiger mother
– (noun) A mother who is determined that her child should be successful and makes them work very hard without regard for the child’s social and emotional development.

This term is fairly new and only became popular in the last decade. Even though it refers to the mother specifically, it is often used as a generic term to describe this particular type of parenting style.

  • “Children of tiger mothers are often assumed to perform better academically even though that’s not always the case.”

– (noun) A person who has pledged to help with the upbringing of a child.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, this is used in a Christian context in relation to the child’s religious and moral upbringing, and a “godparent” is usually chosen by the child’s parents.

However, choosing a “godparent” may not always be religious these days. Furthermore, a “godparent” does not have legal responsibilities even though this used to be the case in the past.

  • “It is my honour to be your child’s godmother.”

Original posts: 16 December 2020