Proper Names

Teresa Koudjeti and her husband taught Sofia, 6, and Sarah, 3, to address adults by
Teresa Koudjeti and her husband taught Sofia, 6, and Sarah, 3, to address adults by "Miss" or "Mr." and a first name. When the girls get older, they will be told to use "Mrs." or "Mr." and a last name. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

Teresa and Nabil Koudjeti instruct their two young daughters to address adults as "Miss" or "Mr." followed by their first names. When the children get a bit older, Teresa Koudjeti said, she'll have them switch to "Mrs." or "Mr." and a last name. No first names allowed.

"I want them to know there's a difference, that adults are not on the same level as them," said Koudjeti, 39, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Potomac.

Still, Sofia, 6, and Sarah, 3, call some close family friends "Aunt" or "Uncle" and a first name -- a link to Koudjeti's upbringing in El Salvador and her husband's Algerian background.

Unlike Koudjeti's children, many of today's parents grew up with an ironclad rule: Adults were "Mr." and "Mrs." with a last name. Sometime during the last, less-formal generation, the rule softened, and children began using first names.

But some parents miss the old-fashioned way, something they see as basic good manners. They are trying to swing the pendulum back -- with a twist. Many have adopted a combination approach that says as much about their sense of family as it does their sense of decorum. Immigrants also are making their mark, often tying in customs from their home countries where more rigid rules govern children in polite society.

Abiye Kassa, 36, who arrived in Takoma Park from Ethiopia a year ago, said he will teach his 2-year-old son, Abel, to use last names when addressing adults.

"My son should be decent and respectful of others," said Kassa, a medical technician. "I think that's implied by using 'Mr.' and the last name. In Ethiopia, there is a respectful way of calling others. Even pronouns change when you call someone with respect."

What would happen if an Ethiopian child called an adult by his or her first name? Kassa's eyes grew wide at the question. He looked a bit puzzled and then let out a short laugh, as if the situation were too absurd to ponder. Finally, he said, "The adult, if he's older, probably would scold the child."

Alejandra Aguirre, 45, of the District said she's sometimes taken aback to hear one of her 12-year-old son's friends ask, "Alejandra, can I have this?"

"I wasn't brought up that way," Aguirre said. "I'm Spanish. We respect the adults."

Aguirre, a bookkeeper, said she teaches her son, Jose, and daughter, Alejandra, 9, to call adults "Mr." or "Mrs." and a last name. Also following Spanish custom, they call some close family friends "Aunt" and "Uncle."

The issue gets discussed on playgrounds and at play dates and often prompts larger questions. Does an 8-year-old respect his neighbor any less if he calls Mr. Johnson "Bob"? Is referring to a friend's mother as "Karen" rude or intimate? And when, if ever, is it appropriate for a child to treat a grown-up more like a friend than an authority figure?

Louisiana and several other states have answered those questions in schools with "respect" laws. They require students to address teachers as "ma'am" or "sir," or with the courtesy titles of "Miss," "Ms.," "Mrs." or "Mr." Punishments for infractions are left to school officials, although the law states students may not be suspended or expelled.

Donald Cravins, 58, a former state senator who wrote the 1999 Louisiana law, said he wanted to preserve a sense of civility and respect between children and adults. Having children use first names "is supposed to be fashionable," said Cravins, an insurance agent. "But it's like telling them we're buddies rather than a parent and child. Can they be friends? Of course. But there's also a line I never crossed with my parents."

Culture and history also come into play, particularly with many African American parents. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and co-author of "Raising Black Children," said calling African American adults by their first name harks back to slavery and segregation. Black people were forced to use honorific titles for white people, who in turn degraded African Americans by using first names.

Poussaint recalled how Mississippi police in the 1960s made a point of calling him "Alvin" rather than "Dr. Poussaint" after asking him, "What's your first name, boy?" Many African American adults would take it as a sign of disrespect or poor upbringing if children called them anything other than "Mr.," "Mrs." or "Miss" with a surname, he said.

"It was an institutional practice to keep people in their place and demean them," Poussaint said of first names. "Black people are very sensitive to being treated with respect, particularly adults. They don't want their children to repeat something that's considered demeaning."

Still, some say being on a first-name basis reflects the closer, yet still respectful, relationships between some children and adults. Julia Cashmere, 44, of Bethesda said she invites friends of her sons Jack, 9, and Peter, 6, to switch from "Mrs. Cashmere" to "Julia" after she gets to know them. Compared with when she was growing up, Cashmere said, children and adults interact far more often, increasing their familiarity over play dates and soccer practices. Seeing her sons' friends several times a week feels like "cross-family pollination," she said.

"There's a whole level of involvement that exposes children to parents so much more," said Cashmere, a stay-at-home mother. "Maybe it's not the names that are changing. Maybe it's just a culture shift."

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