Is the Internet killing kids’ manners?

July 11, 2012

One of the great aspects of being KidsPost editor is that I get to interact so much with readers. Through contests, career days and classroom visits, I get to meet and talk to so many kids, and they never fail to impress me as more innocent, more intelligent and more polite than they get credit for in the media.

So when I recently replied to two children who had e-mailed KidsPost with questions, I was surprised that each of them (a 10-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl) began their e-mails back to me with “Dear Tracy . . . ”

Sure, I had addressed them by their first names in my correspondence to them, but I had also signed the e-mails as I sign all e-mails:

Tracy Grant

KidsPost Editor

The Washington Post

I’ve never really thought of myself as the kind of person who wags a finger and says, “Kids these days have no respect for their elders,” but I confess that’s kind of how I felt. Shouldn’t these kids address me as “Ms. Grant?” Or has the nature of electronic communication blurred the definition of manners so much that it was unfair of me to bristle.

For some guidance, I turned to the goddess of Internet etiquette, Emily Yoffe, who writes Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column.

“I’m sure that if these kids were having an e-mail exchange with one of their teachers, they would use ‘Ms. So-and-So.’ . . . But with e-mail, there are no clear rules, even for adults, so with a kid I think it’s fair to say that they wouldn’t necessarily know to” write Ms. Grant.

Electronic communication aside, how kids refer to adults varies based on the conventions of their school and social groups.

When my boys were small, their friends called me “Miss Tracy” rather than “Mrs. Grant.” As they have aged, some of those kids now just call me Tracy, some Mrs. Grant. Most of them, wisely, just try to avoid calling me anything.

Yoffe says she wanted her daughter to call adults by Mr. and Mrs. But if they were in a group where calling adults by their first names was accepted, she opted not to buck the trend.

“But I love the alternative of Miss and the first name,” she says. “There’s intimacy and respect. I think it’s a great midway for kids.”

So just how much should I obsess about this? Is “Dear Tracy” yet another sign of the decline and fall of civility brought on by the Internet?

“The Internet breaks down the old forms, and on its face that’s not bad,” Yoffe said. “I remember in high school learning how to type a proper letter. [Kids] don’t learn that these days, but how much time do you want your high school student learning about writing proper letters? . . . They can type ‘business letter’ into a search engine and find out everything they need to know.”

Fair enough. Dear Prudence’s position is that “Dear Tracy” does not signal the end of the world as we know it.

But if you’re an under-14 KidsPost reader, I still do prefer “Ms. Grant.”

Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.

Tell us

Should kids refer to adults by their last name? Let us know in the comments section at washingtonpost.com/parenting.

Read more:

Family Almanac archive Read past columns on the Advice page in the Lifestyle section, where you can also find columns by Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy and Miss Manners.

Going Out Guide Find kid-friendly events in your area at goingoutguide.com/kids.

On Parenting Visit the blog each weekday for news and advice: washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

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