It was unusually calm for a Saturday. My husband and I were enjoying a few quiet moments, silently eating breakfast before the chaos of soccer and sibling warfare invaded our weekend. In the family room, our 8-year-old daughter giggled with a friend who had come over for a play date. Suddenly, the girls rushed in like a whirlwind. And, out of nowhere, a child who wasn’t mine was dangling a piece of food in my face.
“Eat it!” she demanded, laughing while holding up a bagel remnant that looked as though it had been on our floor since the Bush administration.
Since I didn’t feel comfortable berating someone else’s child, I calmly stated, “Okay, sweetie, game’s over. Put the food down.”
“Open your mouth!” she commanded me, shoving the food closer to my face. “Eat it!”
Thankfully for everyone involved, the girls made a hasty retreat to plan a Shopkins birthday party in my daughter’s bedroom.
This wasn’t the first time that one of my daughter’s friends had treated me like a fellow 8-year-old instead of a grown woman on the mature side of 40. A couple of weeks earlier, another little girl had smacked my butt. Another time I was repeatedly whacked with a pillow during some sort of couch-cushion battle scene.
Had I behaved like this with my friends’ parents? I tried hard to remember being a kid in the ’80s. Decades later, I’m still too terrified to even imagine such a scenario.
And yet my daughter’s friends are good kids. They’re sweet, and inclusive, and excited about school, sports and each other. Their parents are kind and considerate and put significant time and thought into raising their children and instilling positive values. I have no doubt that if one of them witnessed their child bullying mine, they would leap across the table and correct the behavior, until everyone was sharing their Shopkins fair and square.
But when it comes to respecting adults, there seems to be a missing piece to the puzzle.
My husband and I are far from blameless. Apparently, my 4-year-old recently learned the names of one of his classmate’s parents and has been going around calling them Bob and Emily all week. I can only imagine what little Nathan’s mom is thinking when she hears, “Emily, want to hear what color my poop is today?”
I realize this name game may sound petty, but I’m starting to wonder if this is where it all begins. We’ve struggled — along with so many parents I know — with what to instruct our kids to call the grown-ups in their lives. Calling them by their first names feels inappropriate, but “Mr.” and “Mrs.” seems stiff and outdated. I don’t remember this being an issue as a kid. Growing up, I didn’t even know my friends’ parents had first names. There was a line between kids and adults that we all inherently understood. Moms and dads inhabited adult spaces, like living rooms and kitchen tables, discussing things that were too important (and boring) to be interrupted. We kids sought out other, more exotic spaces to claim as our own — dusty basements, clubhouses erected in half-filled closets, unexplored creeks winding through back corners of neighborhoods. When we left these Narnia-like domains to cross back into the adult realm, we dusted off our manners and proper behavior. Because otherwise we might not be invited back.
I don’t know why these boundaries seem to have eroded. I wonder sometimes what the consequences will be. Will today’s kids go on to struggle with authority, unable to navigate classrooms or job interviews, or entry-level positions? Or are these kids ushering in a new age, where these boundaries will one day fall away, and everyone, regardless of age or position, will be peers on equal footing? In this brave new world, will I be dismissed as a fussy relic for expecting my grandkids’ friends to call me Mrs. Hale?
Maybe. But not today. And there’s no way my kid is smacking any grown-up’s butt.
That night, I sat my daughter down and gave her a heated lecture about how to treat her friends’ parents when visiting their homes. Halfway through, I started to wonder if I was overreacting. But then my husband entered the room and proceeded to give our daughter the same speech. And she sat there and listened politely. Because at the kitchen table, the adults rule. At least until puberty.