When your son and his friends storm the kitchen looking for a snack, what’s more pleasing to your parental ear? Are you a traditionalist looking to be called “Mrs. Smith” by the gang, or is a shoutout to “Sally” all it takes for you to bust out the cookies and chips?
And perhaps more important, have you talked with your kids about how to address other adults?
Though times have changed since we were young and didn’t dream of calling most grownups by their first names, common courtesies have not. Proper form calls for kids to use a title -- Mr., Mrs. or Ms. -- and an adult’s last name until they’re invited by that person to do otherwise.
“It is still a mark of respect in our society,” says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and a spokeswoman for The Emily Post Institute.
But in today’s casual culture, the near-universal use of Mr. and Mrs. has largely evaporated in some quarters, leaving a mixed bag of what kids are calling adults and what those adults actually want to be called.
“Today, there’s more variation because formality is becoming eroded and there’s a drop in respect,” says Thomas Cottle, a Boston University education professor who has studied families for four decades.
For many families, children use first names with their parents’ close friends, and the practice of titles varies by region and ethnicity.
The good news for the manners-minded is that Cottle believes most American parents are teaching their young ones to start with a proper title and take it from there.
Once kids reach grade school and are typically asked to use titles with teachers, parents often begin deciding how to handle the issue at home.
The moms who keep things on a first-name basis like the comfortable feeling it brings and think kids might find them more relatable or trustworthy. “Mrs.” just sounds outdated, makes them feel old or, heaven forbid, like their mother-in-law.
“It makes me feel younger,” says Vikki Massulli, 41, of always introducing herself by her first name. “Mr. and Mrs. seems like it’s for older people.”
Massulli, who has boys 16 months and 9 years, says her kids and most others in her world also use first names.
“We’re sort of loose in our house,” said Massulli, of Gillette, N.J.
“I don’t really tell them to say ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ unless I know that’s what the parents prefer.”
Similarly, Jessica Gee-Burko, whose son turns 2 in September and who socializes with families with older children, is always “Jessica.” She grew up with first-name parents, and she and her husband will follow suit.
“It feels friendly and comfortable, and I think a child can learn respect through behavior and not through having to use titles with adults,” said Gee-Burko, 37, of Boston. “A child has yet to call me ‘Mrs.’ anything. Maybe it’s fading out with the times.”
Maybe. But not for everyone.
Jennifer Jasiczek of San Antonio taught her five children, who are 8 to 16, to address adults the way she did as a girl: to use a title with the last name if they know it; if not, sir or ma’am as a sign of respect.
“I’m trying to teach them not to be too familiar with people,” said Jasiczek, 41, because familiarity “doesn’t teach them proper boundaries.”
And along the route from formal to informal, kids have found other variations like “Mark’s mom,” or “Miss Susan,” but those are generally used by young children. They may come in handy though for moms with last names that are hard to pronounce, are different from their child’s last name or are hyphenated.
Titles aside, it all comes down to respect. If a boy jumps to the familiar with his new friend’s title-approving mom, it will certainly grab her attention, but probably won’t keep him from being invited again. But you can bet that mom will notice whether those after-school snacks she’s serving are greeted with a pleasant “thank you” or an unappreciative grunt.
Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter who lives in New York with her husband and two children. She answers to anything kids call her as long as they use their manners.
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