Should Children Call Adults By Their First Name?
Lately I’ve been reading Amelia Bedelia books to my daughter, T. While struggling to explain synonyms and figures of speech to a 4-year-old and why Amelia Bedelia’s literal-mindedness is funny, I am surprised to discover something else that needs clarification: the meaning of Mr. and Mrs.
As you may recall, Amelia Bedelia is the scatter-brained maid of a well-to-do couple – Mr. and Mrs. Rogers – and she wins them over with her irresistible strawberry pie.
“What does Mister mean, Mommy?” T. asks me, wide-eyed. As I stumble and grasp in the way people do when called upon to explain deceptively simple concepts, I marvel at why it is that, at the mature age of 4 – with two years of experience talking and plenty of exposure to adults – she doesn’t know what these terms of address are (or how to use them).
I’ve given a great deal of thought to this issue of what my daughters should call people. When I was T’s age, I went to nursery school every morning. I don’t remember my teacher’s name, but you can be sure I called her Mrs. X. Conversely, from the age of 1, T. has had countless caregivers and every one of them has gone by his or her first name.
When did this change occur? At what point did it become acceptable for toddlers to address adults so casually?
To try and pinpoint the moment when this move away from formality may have occurred, I ask my 50-year-old brother about his daughters (ages 19 and 15). He says their friends rarely address him, but when they do, they call him and my sister-in-law Mr. and Mrs. Wong (even though my sister-in-law never changed her last name and is not technically Mrs. Wong). One of the 19-year-old’s friends calls him Terry, but he says that never struck him as strange, nor did it bother him in any way.
I think I’d find it jarring to answer to “Mrs. Payne” (my husband’s surname) but at the same time, I think that being called “Deanna” by little munchkins a bit off-putting. My unscientific research has led me to conclude that those who are between the ages of 42 and 50 can be blamed for the “chummification” of the relationship between adults and kids, and the disappearance of these formal terms of address.
I think it’s a shame that a social norm that I grew up with — something I don’t recall ever having been taught —is disappearing.