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 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 them. So what changed? Why are children today taught differently?
Don’t get me wrong – 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 Rush Limbaugh with 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. And when that acknowledgement of authority is established, boundaries are more often honored. It seems that today, boundary setting and establishment of authority by adults has largely gone by the wayside. As I walk in the mall or run my errands, I’ve seen my fair share of brazen teens telling their parents to “shut up” or calling their mother a bitch. My home growing up was pretty easy going, but you’d better believe that if I ever called my mom a bitch she’d make sure it never happened again. I do know many parents who are firm on this issue and make sure their kids show respect to their elders, so it’s possible that this unruly behavior is changing. But that certainly isn’t what I’m hearing from school teachers and administrators.
I’m not saying that addressing an adult by his or her surname is THE reason for American youth’s 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.