One topic that didn’t make my last post on manners is interactions between kids and adults. This issue is, to society’s detriment, seldom discussed among parents or in parenting books… so I was pleasantly surprised, when my book club recently read Raising Respectful Children in a Disrespectful World, to find author Jill Rigby bold enough to address the issue. “Don’t allow your children to call adults by their first names,” she writes. “You need to establish the boundary between the adult and the child.”
There are two separate but related parenting issues here. One: considering child-adult interactions and training kids toward established goals for interacting with grown-ups (beyond kids’ inner circle of grandma, uncles, etc). Two: figuring out nomenclature. How do you want your kids to address adults? The options are basically: a) first names; b) Mr and Mrs First Name, c) Mr and Mrs Last Name, or d) none of the above. Option d, “none of the above,” happens with some frequency as one real life recent example illustrates. A fellow parent attendee at a four-year-old birthday was thanking the host with his daughter. “Say thank you to Cody’s mom,” he told her. The child duly thanked her – but didn’t add her name. How could she? Saying, “Thank you, Cody’s mom” wouldn’t have worked. This dad had, on the first issue, evidently not considered how he wanted his child to interact with adults and, on the second issue, landed on option d – no names for grown-ups.
Here’s our story: until our eldest child was almost three, my husband and I were in the “hadn’t really considered it” camp on issue one and had ended up with option a) on issue two, with our kids calling adults by first name. We kind of slipped into it as a result of babies’ lack of speech for the first year or two. Till speech sets in, a kid doesn’t call anyone anything anyway, right? We just continued interacting with friends by first name as we always had with our baby in tow… And by the time our son could actually talk, it felt weird and forced to switch to something different. So first names it was. This was the norm among our circles in the northeast anyway.
Trouble is, neither my husband nor I particularly like children calling us by our first names… nor were we crazy about our kids addressing adults by first name. My husband, whose family is more informal than my own, dislikes the first name thing more than I do. I grew up calling adults Mr and Mrs (Last Name) – the standard for our generation and fine by me. My husband, though, grew up calling some adults by first name and some Mrand Mrs (Last Name) — only he didn’t like calling adults by their first name. It felt awkward to address them as he would his peers, and he reports intentionally inverting sentences to avoid calling the adult by any name. He hated it.
When our oldest was nearly 3 we moved to southern California; clean slate to rethink nomenclature. I felt sure that first names for adults would pervade in such a culturally progressive and informal region, so I was surprised to find our next-door neighbors, with four kids aged 2 to 8, were a “Mr and Mrs Last Name” family. Immediate observations: First, while it felt weird at first to be called Mrs (Last Name), I warmed up to it and the strangeness quickly faded. Second, I felt more comfortable being called this than I did by my first name. Third, these kids had been trained to address me directly and look me in the eye… which meant that my direct relationship with them (and not just with their parents) quickly superseded the nomenclature issue.
I see the last point as the most important of the bunch. After having regular, positive interactions with our neighbors’ kids, my husband and I realized what an anomaly this experience was. I certainly hadn’t been instructing my child to greet adults by name and look them in the eye. At playgroup, for example, we adults were basically there to interact with our adult friends and the kids were there to see their friends: two parallel but largely un-intersecting paths. We moms often talked together about the children, yes, but we rarely interacted with the children – or they with us – except in utilitarian ways.
The best verse in the Bible to address issues of child interactions with adults is probably Leviticus 19:32: “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God.” It’s telling that the first two phrases find their way into the same sentence as the last: revere your God. It suggests that one way the young revere God is by intentionally showing respect to their elders. The Bible is saturated with verses commending wisdom and its pursuits, and therefore adults (whose wisdom exceeds that of children) merit kids’ respect by virtue of their years.
What kids intentionally respecting adults looks like in practice may differ somewhat – certainly in terms of nomenclature, as many viable options exist today. Families have different styles and rationales here, and one size may not fit all. We now use “Mr and Mrs Last Name” (except for very close family friends who go by Uncle and Aunt First Name), because we feel that it best fosters in kids the respect for elders that the Bible teaches. But again, the bigger picture question that should unify us all is: are we training our kids to respect and appropriately interact with the adults in their lives? To look them in the eye, greet them by name, shake hands when appropriate, interact with them, thank them by name? Such interactions are good for our kids, good for society, and honoring to God – a win, win, win. Let’s keep at it.