I’m sure we’re all familiar with these terms and that we all think of them in similar yet somewhat different ways. For instance, some tend to think of them as one-in-the-same (i.e., synonymous) and therefore tend to use them interchangeably while others view them as depicting distinct roles or situations. So, what is the truth?
This overarching question can be broken down into several questions including: “What are the real differences?” “Do these four terms depict four unique roles and/or relationships?” “Which is the most important role and why?” “Why are different terms used to depict what appears to be the same person/relationship/role?”
In my attempt to answer these questions, I’ll start with the typical Philadelphia lawyer response: “It depends…”. Hence, the answers to these questions are multidimensional and depend on the context, time, and place. Hence, I’ll address each area separately starting with the semantics and leading to the actual “real-world” differences and their implications.
Meanwhile, I hope this discussion will provide some insights that will help clarify the terms “Father”, “Dad”, “Daddy”, and “Papa”.
Different titles, same relationship
This scenario applies to some terms and situations more than others.
For instance, at least in the USA, the terms “dad” and “daddy” have identical/nearly identical meaning are often used interchangeably. Oftentimes, very young children call their male parent “Daddy” until they approach or reach adolescence. At that point, they start calling the same person “Dad”; however, there are plenty of exceptions to this, as I know many adults who affectionately call their male parent “Daddy”. Hence, we will merge these two terms for the purposes of this article.
Another term that’s also a bit synonymous with “dad” is “papa”. “Papa” seems to be the equivalent of “dad” in parts of Europe, Latin America, and Asia. As best I can tell, the distinction between “papa” and “dad” lies mainly in the geography versus in differentiating relationships. There are a few exceptions to this. For instance, in some families, “Papa” is the grandparent. In the Philippines and likely other countries as well, lower and middle-income families tend to invoke the term “Papa” whereas high-income families might gravitate more toward the term “Dad”. Regardless, the actual relationship is the same.
The “Real” Differences in Meaning
Thus far, I believe we have established that the terms “dad”, “daddy”, and “papa” refer to the same parent-child relationship in most cases. Thus, going forward, I’ll adhere to the term “dad”, just to keep it simple and help avoid confusion.
Meanwhile, we haven’t yet explored the fourth term, “father”. This is because I believe that such is where the main distinctions lie. I’m sure we all agree that “father” is almost always the legal and formal term for the male parent, who is often also referred to as the “dad”. However, to say “father” and “dad” mean the same thing is an over-generalization at best and is more likely a totally incorrect statement in many situations. A good Segway into this discussion is the known and ever-so-true saying: “Any guy can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a dad.”.
I believe this expression is the root of differences in the primary types of (male) parent-child relationships. Hence, I will dedicate the rest of this article to a deep dive into each.
What is a father?
As I alluded earlier, “father” is the formal and legal term for the male parent. I believe this is universal. It is also pretty unambiguous how one can become a father to a given child – either via procreation or via legal adoption. This means a child might have more than one father. For instance, in the case of adoption, the legal (adoptive) father is different from the biological father. One might also have two legal fathers in the case of adoption by a same-sex male couple.
Regardless, because of its legal meaning, the term “father” is almost always used in legal paperwork that refers to the male parent(s). Obviouisly, the term’s meaning is pretty clear-cut in these situations.
This is basically where the meaning and context of the term “father” ends.
What is a dad? Exactly who can be a dad?
The term “dad” refers to the deep relationship between male parent and child. Being a true dad covers multiple dimensions, as is the case with any meaningful relationship between two people. This is what makes “all about being a dad” much more complex than simply being a father. The following paragraphs will describe the main things that being a dad entails.
So, exactly what is a dad? A dad is the man who loves you, who cares for you, who nurtures, encourages, and guides you, who raises you, and who takes accountability for who you are. He is the one who selflessly gives his life and livelihood to you. A dad is the one who will celebrate each accomplishment of yours with great joy and pleasure – often with more emotion than celebrating his own. He is also the one who is always there for you – to love you, to guide you, to encourage you, and to be a place of refuge when others are unkind and life events happen to you. He is your best friend and confidant. He will correct your misguided thoughts, actions and behaviors, not to punish you but to – out of his love for you – make you better. No matter what happens, he will always love you and will never judge you.
A dad will attend your school, sports and other important events. He will be the one who cherishes you and will do everything within his reach and power to make you happy, to give you a good life, and will always strive to help you reach your full potential in all aspects of life. He will wipe your nose when you are not feeling well. He will comfort you when you fall and skin your knee or arm and will put a band aid on your booboo. He will comfort you and the wipe tears from your eyes when you are sad. He will hug you, kiss you, and lavish his love on you. He will play fun games with you and take you places that you will enjoy experiencing with him. A dad’s love is spelled “T.I.M.E”, as both of you will value and treasure every moment you spend together. He will teach you how to ride a bike, how to swim, and/or how to shave. Most important, he will teach you life lessons that you will always remember and treasure. He will help you with your homework and will be glowing with pride and joy at your graduation.
This all sounds really good, but who can be a dad? The answer is that special adult male who loves you, is always there for you, and who meets the above criteria. In many situations, this is the same person as the biological father. However, there are many, many exceptions to this. Sadly, not all fathers choose to become dads, or at least not to every child they father. Some fathers conceive their child/children and move on with their lives without their children being in their lives. These fathers are clearly not dads. Furthermore, dads who are not fathers yet love, cherish, raise and support their children as described above are in every way “a dad” and are no less a dad to a given child than those who are also their child’s father.
Although “dad” is often thought of as an informal but otherwise synonymous term to “father”, such is not case in the real sense, as the two terms depict two entirely different things. One can be both a father and a dad to the same child. A man can be a child’s dad without being his/her father. And a man can be a child’s father without being his/her dad.
One becomes a father via a one-time event that occurs in partnership with that child’s mother. It is a one-and-done event that really focuses on the mother. A father’s relationship to and with a child is biological, but that’s really the extent of it. By contrast, being a dad entails a very deep, ongoing, loving, lifelong relationship with his child/children that is wrapped in love and is a lifetime commitment. Unlike being a father, being a dad is all about the child, not the mother.
Although a given child can have only one biological father, he/she can have more than one dad.
I hope this helps clarify the meaning of and does justice to the term “dad” (which is usually synonymous with “daddy” and “papa”).
Adoption is a wonderful process by which a dad can also become the child’s legal father. I saved adoption for last only because I wanted to first illustrate the difference between the terms “father” and “dad” (or “daddy” or “papa”) in the absence of completing an adoption.
In the case of adoption, the male parent becomes the child’s legal father, even though he is not the biological father. An adoptive father is almost always that child’s dad. In fact, the adoption process enjoins both terms and applies them to the dad who undergoes the legal adoption process. IOW, an adoptive father is in every way that child’s dad and father, except for the biological aspect of “father”. For a dad to adopt his son/daughter, it is a further expression of his love for and commitment to that child because he has chosen to take on ALL of the legal rights and responsibilities that go with being a father.
Personally, I am very high on adoption because it knits together what are otherwise separate entities (“father” and “dad”), thereby making both complete in one person.
Unfortunately, some cultures look down on adoption. This is truly unfortunate because they fail to distinguish the relationship between the biological parents (with respect to each other) from the adoptive parents’ relationship to his/her/their children. These are two entirely different things that absolutely must be decoupled from each other. IOW, being an adopted child is every bit as much an honor as being a biological child, as both are actually precious and beautiful children of God, regardless of who their biological parents are and what their biological parents did. In fact, one could easily argue that there is actually more honor to being an adopted child because he/she was chosen by his/her adoptive parent(s).
Wait a minute! What about the female parent?
Please note that everything I said in this article is fully/100.0% applicable to the female parent. The terms “mother” (equivalent to father) and “mom” (or “mommy”, “mama”, or “mum”) invoke the same exact criteria and definitions – no more, no less – as those of their male counterparts. The only difference is the parent’s gender.