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How Should Children Address Adults?

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Parenting, Families, & the Community > How Should Children Address Adults?


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How should 3-year-old address other adults?

July 2003

I've been mulling over how I should have my 3-yr-old son address other adults who aren't close family friends, such as schoolmates' parents, casual acquaintances, etc. The ''Mrs. Jones'' of my childhood, or the more up-to-date ''Ms. Jones,'' seems too formal, yet just a first name seems a bit too informal. His preschool staff are referred to as ''Ms. Julia,'' etc., which is good for school but sounds a bit stilted in real life. I had mostly decided to just use first names, but read an article today by child ''expert'' ranting about children calling him by his first name (he is generally very conservative and often cantankerous, but still...). My guess is that there isn't a perfect solution, but I'd like to hear how others have dealt with it. Thanks. Kathy


i'm a huge stickler when it comes to manners. i think kids should address adults as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. my kids address their friends parents by Mr. & Mrs. of course that doesn't go for relatives (i.e. grama, uncle and aunt). as for their teachers they address them as Ms. denise or Mr. william. we have a few friends that prefer to be called by their first names and we have given permission to our kids to do that. i have met so many children that don't even have the please and thank you down which i think is inexcusible! there's nothing better to meet a child that has manners yolanda
I was raised to call all adults by ''Mr.'' and ''Mrs.'' or ''Ms.'' I carried this through my adulthood and consider it a sign of respect to elders. Perhaps it's a cultural thing, though. Many ''Americans'' find that calling them by their first names is respectful, yet in many Asian and Latin American countries, having the proper ''mr.'' and ''mrs.'' is expected. Many of my friends (we are in our 30s and 40s) still call their parents' friends by ''mr.'' and ''mrs.'', unless someone tells them to call them by their first name since they feel uncomfortable about it. (We were actually just discussing this the other day and a bunch of us agreed that the ''phenomenon'' of calling an elder by their first name is more of a West Coast thing than an East Coast thing, too. Does anyone find this to be so?)

It's also our way of honoring our elders. We have two neighbors who are in their late 70's, and even though both have introduced themselves to us by their first name and last name, my husband and I have always called them by ''mr.'' and ''mrs.'' (BTW, I don't think it matters whether one uses ''mrs.'' or ''Ms.'' - basically the person may ask you to call her one or the other.)

In my opinion, even though respect is something that needs to be earned, children still need some form of structure to learn the difference between an elder and a child. And, even when a child is in their teens or young adulthood, I think there is still a need to differentiate between an elder and a young adult). There is obviously no right or wrong in this matter, but for me, it's more of a ''manners'' issue (and a bit cultural, too). anon


Safest route your child should address unfamiliar adults by their sur-name UNLESS the adult introduces themselves differently, or eventually says, ''You can just call me Fred.'' When I was growing up children always addressed adults as Mr., Mrs., Sir...out of respect for our elders. In the Bay area, this seems to have become outdated. Working in a Montessori school, we teachers are addressed by our first names these days. This seems fine for people of my generation, but I would recommend addressing baby-boomers and elderly people by their formal sur- names. They grew up during a time where elders were respected and using the Sur-name was part of that respect. I have personally seen older citizens take offense to being called by their first name by a younger adult. Also, other parts of the country, smaller towns especially, still use this formality when younger people address adults or elders. almost elder
Call people what they want to be called. Ask the adult if they want your child to address them by first or last name. Then have your child do whatever makes them happy. anon

How should toddler address non-family adults?

January 2003

I'm confused about how I should encourage my toddler to start referring to non-family adults. My personal preference would be that my child call an adult Ms. Smith or Mr. Jones, or maybe ''Auntie Beth'' if it's a close family friend. Yet I never hear other adults providing these cues to their children. Is this a practice that's gone out of style? A recent parent posting expressed the matter very well for me, stating: ''I now think that calling adults by first names is really too familar and promotes a ''false'' sense of equality/peerdom between adults and kids. Using a title INSTANTLY puts an adult at a different level than a kid and helps a kid to understand the concept of respecting the position if not the individual in it..I think instilling ritual respect for elders is an important value that many of us unthinkingly threw away too fast - and yes, I do believe that questioning authority is valuable too, but respecting authority is also important....'' So, how do you encourage your child in this practice? On the other side of the coin: if every other child calls Ms. Smith by her first name, does my child seem like an outsider if I've discouraged him from using her first name? Deirdre


Whatever you decide to do, I recommend you tell your child that adults will have their own preferences about how the child addresses them, and that the child should address adults the way they want to be addressed. I was mortified as a child in about the third grade (early 70s) when a friend's mother told me rather sternly that she would prefer it if I called her ''Mrs. Smith.'' This was after I called her by her first name. I had always called all adults, except teachers, by their first names, and my mother had never warned me that some adults might prefer more formality. (This was part of a pattern of my mom not educating me about manners and social expectations, so maybe I took this incident hard because it reinforced my insecurity about knowing how to behave in the world.)
Still Embarassed After All These Years
I am very interested to see the replies on this one. My husband and I felt strongly when our child was born that we wanted him to call all non-family adults by ''Mr.'' and ''Mrs.'', as we did when we were kids - for all the reasons you (and the previous poster) listed. But he's now 2.5, and its been hard. Aside from one couple we're friends with (who also have a small child and are teaching her that as well), everyone had objected - ''no, it's Jane!'' It's also difficult becuase I feel awkward telling my son to ''Go ask Mrs. Jones'' when Mrs. Jones is having her child call me by my first name, and/or Mrs. Jones doesn't like being called Mrs. Jones. I also feel awkward about using and encouraging Mr/Mrs in these situations and thus in some way giving the message to the other parent that I don't like their choice, and want their child to call ME by the ''Mrs.'' name. One, I don't want to impose this choice on others, and two, I have an admitted emotional double standard here - I don't like being called Mrs. X, really, as that feels like my mother-in-law's name. (Though I'd rather that that my kids learn to call adults by their first name.) So what to do?? We've been weak. With that one couple we are strictly Mr/Mrs. Other than that I'm ashamed to admit I do a lot more ''Go ask so-and-so's Mom'' than I would ordinarly - thus avoiding using any name. But my son, of course, cathes on to names quickly at this point, and now uses some first names for adults around us.

This isn't very helpful, I know, other than to say - its harder than I thought to enforce this. Do I just need more backbone? Are we in the minority in thinking this is a good idea? Do most parents NOT teach this nowadays, or is the use of first names for non-family adults just a Bay Area or California thing? Anon


Well, ultimately it's your call, and you should do what makes you feel comfortable for your family. And you're right, the current trend is towards children addressing adults in their circle by their first names. For our family, that works well. I feel a deeper connection to those children who call me by my first name, and I can see my son responding with more affection and comfort to those adults he addresses by their first name. I don't feel any loss of respect by using first names.

On the other hand, I remember that I called my parents' friends Mr. or Mrs.--indeed I still do--and rarely if ever felt close to them, or that I could turn to them for fun or support. That ability to enjoy the company of and trust an adult seems to me to be the start of a deep and personal kind of respect. Carolyn


Deirdre, My husband and I have been grappling with the same question, and so I am very interested to see the responses to your post!

One idea, which a friend suggested to me: She said that when she was growing up, she addressed teachers and the parents of her friends by Mr. and Mrs. (or Ms.) Last Name. Her parents' friends, however, were addressed by first names. When I asked, she said that this system was not confusing at all to her as a child, and that she did learn from it that adults were not her peers... but that, at the same time, some adults (such as good friends of her parents) were - in a way - friends of hers, too. Sarah


This bothers me, too, but I've just given up because everyone else's kids call adults by their first names. My children do use titles with adult relatives: Aunt Rachel, Uncle Jeff, etc. Jennifer N.
A friend of mine and I grew up in the Midwest and *always* called adults by Mr. and Mrs. Of course, its weird now to try and change to their first name. My friend, while living in Atlanta, discovered a system she was really comfortable with. Her friends kids called her Ms or Mrs and then her first name! So, I would be Ms. Jennifer. She said it still had a respectful tone, but kids could transition to a full first name after their teenage years, etc.

It seemed like a good mix of respectfulness and common sense, and could also eliminate the ''call me Jane'' thing. Because the child would still be using the first name and the title. Jennifer


I have three kids, 7, 4 and an infant. Since my oldest was little, I began having her call most grownups (except a couple of really, really close family friends) but their last name. Many of these grownups correct them and ask them to call them by their first name. By now, both my 7 and 4 year olds understand that my expectation is that they call adults they are just meeting by their last name -- but that the adult may ask them to call them by their first. But they do ask me what people's last names are so they can correctly address them. I felt for awhile that I never meet a grownup who did want to be called by their last name here in the Bay Area, but they are out there. We moved here from Illinois and found that more people in the midWest still prefer children to address adults as Mr, Mrs or Ms. I think it is still an important part of teaching children to be respectful of adults and, while kids are important, they are not peers of adults. Sign me, Mrs. N
I hail orginally from the south where all adults are called either by Mrs/Mr. last name or more frequently Mr./Mrs. First Name. I like the custom of using mr/mrs first name as it is still a formaility without being too formal. I think mostly kids pick up cues from you on what they are to call people- if you call the person by their first name when talking to the child that's what they will call them. Anyway I thought I'd throw that suggestion into the ring. Good luck! Juliette
I'd like to add my 2 cents here...I don't think there's a black and white answer to this situation. I think we teach our children to respect or not respect other adults (and all people) by the way we raise them and act as roll models, not by whether or not we call someone by his/her first or last name. When I was a kid (I'll be 50 next week) some adults were called by first and some by last. There was no issue made about it. Of course teachers were called Mr. or Mrs, but when my cousins moved to Israel in the early 60's and reported back that there, teachers were called by first names, I was surprised and thought it was so cool.

My children, ages 7 1/2 and 12 are respectful of other adults because my husband and I have taught them that that is the way to treat adults...also, if they want to be respected, they must behave respectfully. I would say most of the adults in my boys life are on a first name basis. My children don't view these adults as peers.

My older son goes to a school where the K-5 grades call teachers by first names. The middle school teachers...some are first name, and some are Mr, Mrs Miss or Ms.(go figure!!)There is no question about respecting teachers at that school. I hope you come to a comfortable solution for yourselves, but I'm wondering if it might be more helpful for you to take a differenet view on this.
prefer to be called June


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