If I’d walked up to my first-grade teacher and said “Nice to meet you, Susan,” my mom probably would have broken out in stress-sweats and hidden the Pop-Tarts for a week. I think I was in middle school before I realized my teachers had first names at all, and even then, I was extremely uncomfortable wielding that kind of personal information about them.
One of the earliest etiquette lessons I remember was learning that adults were to be addressed by “Miss/Mister” and their last name. This was considered a sign of respect. If it was my first time meeting a grown-up and I didn’t know their last name, I defaulted to “sir” and “ma’am,” to be safe. This habit was so ingrained that I don’t even remember being explicitly told to do it; it was more of a subtle, unspoken law.
In linguistics, terms that demonstrate respect are called honorifics, and they exist in most languages. I’ve taught my own children to address the world with kindness and respect. My children refer to adults they just met and authority figures such as teachers as “Miss/Mister SURNAME,” while more familiar adults such as coaches and friends’ parents are addressed as “Miss/Mister FIRST NAME. That’s as informal as it gets. And until recently, I hadn’t given the exact language we used much thought. That is, until Merriam-Webster decided to add the non-binary pronoun “they” to the dictionary.
This year, on the first day of school, my kids walked into their respective classrooms and greeted their new teachers the way I’d always taught them: They scanned the room for the adult who seemed to be in charge and made a judgment about that person’s gender to decide which honorific was appropriate. “Good morning, Mr. Smith.”
Gender and identity are not black and white concepts, though, and they certainly aren’t easily distinguishable by any outside observer, let alone a nervous and distracted 8-year-old. Even if they were clearly defined categories of humans, they shouldn’t be the most prominent or important factors to a child. Until recently, I never thought about the fact that Miss and Mister are strictly binary gendered terms.
Now, I wonder whether — inadvertently — I’ve subtly influenced my kids toward identifying individuals based on gender.
In the United States, it seems the higher the status of an individual, the less tied their honorific is to gender. Doctors, professors, police officers and the president of the United States are all addressed using completely gender-neutral titles. Teachers, parents and Gymboree instructors, on the other hand, are typically referred to using the default terms: miss or mister.
But the problem of gender-specific identifiers is more systemic than simply needing to add new words to our language. Young children are more likely to be in close contact with parents and preschool teachers rather than police officers and politicians when they are forming the habits they will carry with them the rest of their lives. By the time older children have the opportunity to correctly address Professor Smith or Gov. Jones, they will have been taught to form a judgment about that person’s gender, after years of separating adults into Miss and Mister.
Scandinavia seems to be leading the Western world in its treatment of gender equality. Iceland and other countries such as Sweden, Finland and Norway are considered among the most gender-progressive societies in the Western world. Sweden has gender-neutral preschools, where children are not expected to adhere to any gender stereotypes. They are also universally referred to using a gender-neutral pronoun “hen” rather than the traditional gendered options “han” or “hon.” This is the Swedish equivalent to referring to everyone as “they” rather than “him” or “her.”
In the United States, we are sitting on the precipice of a new era of gender and identity. The way we raise our children will have a lasting impact on how they view the world and their place in it. I would prefer a culture that values the role a person chooses in society and the ways they contribute, rather than what may or may not be hidden under their skirt.
While Scandinavia seems to be on a path toward gender neutrality, there are still steps that need to be taken in the English-speaking world. Some advocates have proposed solutions such as creating new, gender-neutral honorifics: Mx. (pronounced “mix”) or Rp. (which stands for “respected person”). However, simply tacking more honorifics onto existing gendered ones seems to miss the point of gender neutrality. First of all, both Mx. and Rp. look better on paper than they sound out loud.
Plus, by creating new honorifics alongside traditional gendered ones, deciding between Miss, Mister, or Mix still requires a child to make a snap judgment about their teacher’s gender and then identify it out loud. To raise a truly progressive generation, we need to consider how we value and respect another person — first by gender or first by the contributions they make to society?
Next school year, I’d like to offer my children alternative language, and if that means saying “Teacher Smith” and “Teacher Jones,” then so be it. They’ve certainly earned that respect, not by the chromosomes with which they were born, but by showing up to school every day to educate children. Surely that’s the most important thing to recognize.
Who knows, maybe it will catch on.
Mary Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and novelist. Her debut novel, “A Mutual Addiction,” will be released in January. Read more at marywiddicks.com. You can find her on Twitter @MaryWiddicks.