I was 13 when I thought it would be fun to call my 8th grade teacher by her first name. More out of boredom than disrespect, my normally good judgment lapsed and I acted out by responding to her, “Yes, Nancy.” I was promptly sent to the principal’s office, and I didn’t think it was so fun after that. I hung my head in shame and dreaded the reprimanding to come. My parents were informed of the incident and were certain to correct my misbehavior. “You will never address an adult by her first name, do you understand? Never.”
Today, however, this so-called misbehavior is marginalized. Calling adults by their first name has become the cultural norm in households, neighborhoods, and even schools. In most circles I am introduced to children as Ms. Danielle. What ever happened to Mrs. Larkins? Did my last name escape my womb along with my child? Is this a regional phenomenon? Maybe it’s his Midwestern sensibilities, but my husband has taken notice of this trend as well. And we find ourselves in the minority as we wonder how addressing an adult by his or her last name has become a thing of the past.
To this day (even at the age of 33) I address my friends’ parents by their last names, as do most of my friends. Because they are not our peers but our elders – and we were taught to show respect to our elders. So what changed? Why are children today taught differently?
I’m not judging other parents for how they raise their children, despite my disagreement on this topic. I just don’t understand why the tradition stopped. Has our culture lost its respect for its elders? Have we just become a more informal society? Or maybe our desire to elevate our kids’ self worth has gone overboard, and we don’t want our kids to feel they are “beneath” anyone else. When I’ve asked other parents why they don’t teach their children to address adults by their surname they seem uncertain – as if it is the first time they’ve thought about it. My guess is that they succumb to the rationale that “everyone else is doing it so I will too.”
But I won’t succumb. Look, I’m no super-conservative-with-the-family-values type. And Husband and I aren’t these anachronistic characters who refuse to accept change. But we do believe the act of addressing an adult by his or her last name is a necessary tradition with no expiration date.
The way a child addresses an adult not only displays respect but an acknowledgment of authority, one that establishes boundaries.
I’m not saying that addressing an adult by his or her surname is the reason for American youth misbehavior. I also understand that adults earn respect through their actions, not by their title. I do believe, however, that this simple step is the first action a child can take in establishing a respectful relationship. And maybe, just maybe, it serves a greater good than just upholding an old school tradition. Perhaps this etiquette provides a conscious (and subconscious) appreciation for our elders who are deserving of our acknowledgement and our respect.
Danielle Larkins is a mother of two residing in Northern Virginia. In addition to being a stay-at-home mom, she is a freelance writer for Red Tricycle and blogs about parenting at tiny-trots.
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