When I was little and growing up in the former-USSR, I called my parents’ friends either Aunt or Uncle with their name appended. My African-American husband did the same when he was a boy living in Harlem.
But, in 2012 in New York City, it isn’t quite as simple anymore.
Our two oldest sons go to a very traditional school, where all teachers and other adults are addressed as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. (It’s actually pretty funny, the door of one kindergarten classroom lists the teachers’ names as Mrs. X, Miss Y, and Ms. Z.) As a result, all of their schoolmates’ parents are also formally referred to.
Which is fine, but what if Boy A’s mother is actually either Mrs. B (due to remarriage) or Ms. C (due to keeping her maiden name). How is a 5-year-old supposed to know? (And why am I the one stuck explaining it?)
And then how do you explain to that same 5-year-old why his friends’ parents are to be called by their last names, because all adults deserve a certain level of respect, but the babysitter is to be called by her first name–isn’t she an adult worthy of respect, too?
And then what do you do when one child’s parent urges yours to call them by their first name, and another doesn’t? You end up with sentences like, “At the playground today I saw Mrs. Smith. And Howie.”
The scenario becomes even more fun when your child is friends with a child who has been taught to call adults by their first names, while yours calls them by their last names.
Our daughter goes to a very progressive preschool, where not only are teachers addressed by their first names, but all adults. (In the seven years with three kids we’ve spent at this school, only one set of parents hasn’t asked my kids to call them by their first names. They were also quite shocked when my kids initially called them Mr. and Mrs. One of them even observed, “That’s a surprise. I like it!”)
Frankly, based on the way that I was raised, I feel uncomfortable when a child calls me by my first name. It just comes off as disrespectful, no matter the intent. (I am equally uncomfortable calling anyone older than me by their first name, unless I know them well. Back in my journalism days, many a subject thought I was simply odd to keep addressing them so formally.)
But, when it comes to my brood’s classmates, what choice do I have? One of my staunchest parenting rules is not to parent other people’s kids. (Unless there’s danger involved, and then I can get real loud, real fast. But, that isn’t the case here.) If a child is told to call me by my first name, I go along with it. Even if it makes me feel all squicky.
I feel equally squicky whenever my kid calls another adult by their first name. But, since the point of manners is to make the other person (not you) feel comfortable, I go along with their wishes.
Where things get particularly interesting is with our childless friends. They rarely have a formal policy–that they’re aware of–on the subject. And yet, based on numbers from my very unscientific survey, I have yet to meet a childless friend who is comfortable with being addresses as Mr. or Ms. by my kids.
I introduce them as “Meet Ms. Smith,” and they counter with, “Call me Becky.” My kids sneak a questioning peek my way. I give them a little nod. Life goes on.
The issue here is–I won’t parent other people’s kids, but aren’t people who contradict my instructions to my own children, in fact, attempting to parent mine?
If a mother tells her child, “This is Ms. Smith,” do you, as an adult, have the right to say, “Call me Becky?”
Who gets to set the terms?
Am I making my kids freaks (a recurrent theme of mine) by insisting on a code of conduct the majority rejects?
Am I, in fact, being rude, by the very act of insisting on it?
What is politeness, anyway? Whose benefit is it for?
And, in this day and age, does it even matter?