What Happened to Kids Addressing Adults by Their Last Name??



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.

14 thoughts on “What Happened to Kids Addressing Adults by Their Last Name??”

  1. I just had a similar conversation with a friend a few weeks ago! My kid is two and I haven't really introduced him to too many people but I was at a loss when I had to. I reverted to using the Mr. (First Name) because that's what they do at school. This has definitely given me something to think about because I still call my elders by their last name. Thanks for the piece!

  2. We've run into this too. The people at church often introduce themselves to the children by first name, and we sometimes don't know the last name at the point of introduction. We've made the rule for our children that people younger than high school (as our children are all in grade school or lower) are first name, people our age or younger that introduce themselves by first name are Ms./Mrs./Mr. First Name (though they will certainly call them by last name if that is how they are introduced)–that takes care of most of the Sunday School teacher crowd, and people who are older than us are called by last name as soon as we determine that name! It is very confusing, as people often introduce themselves to a family with only their given name!

    Then in the girls' scouting troop more than half of the leaders go by last name, which we encourage, but some of them switch back and forth, so I'm never sure how to communicate to my girls who I'm speaking of!

    I wonder if some of it is the older person wanting to be relate-able and feel young, and that adds a bit to the confusion, since that is their preferred moniker.

  3. I don't know if my post went through. I was saying I think what's also fascinating is the whole Uncle/Aunt introduction to close friends, or people who aren't family. Sandy and I have talked at length about how to handle that. I think we are much more in agreement with the Mr/Mrs last name rather than first names or Aunt/Uncle. I think what's really hard is when you do introduce someone as Mr/Mrs last name, and they correct you to Mr or Ms First name. Oh the times we live. Ultimately though I think it's a great tradition and one that you will hear our kids (or kid) abiding by.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Debbie! It's been interesting reading people's comments because it seems as though a lot want to follow Mr./Mrs + Surname but feel uncomfortable doing so for various reasons.

  5. Thank you so much for your comment, Kristy! It does seem as though a lot of people are uncertain as to what to call themselves or others. I think you're right about older people wanting to feel relate-able. Or they are following the trend.

  6. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Ryan! It is awkward when others enforce the first name introduction. But I'm sure Cora will catch on just like we did ;) All my love to the fam!

  7. I am definitely on the same page! It drives me nuts when parents introduce me to their kids at Miss Jennifer. I’m pretty laid back about things… but it just seems wrong and doesn’t teach the child that there is a difference between my child and me.

    Jennifer @ The Jenny Evolution

  8. I’m from Alabama and I’m 23 years old and this has always been a cultural norm for me as has respecting my elders. In the south we may call our friends’ parents “Miss Susan” and “Mr. Bob” but we also answer them “sir” and “ma’am” every time and back talk is absolutely never tolerated. This is usually happens with friends’ parents who you are very close with. If I don’t know an adult very well, it’s always Mrs. Last Name. However in some other settings, like preschools, kids often use Ms. First Name as it is easier for the kids to say. I don’t think that less formal has to mean disrespectful. I don’t know where you are living but if it’s in the South, it’s just cultural and if you don’t, maybe the kid or family is from the south. If it bothers you, just ask to be addressed differently. I think we all just need to be mindful and respectful of cultural differences.

    1. Thanks so much for visiting and taking the time to comment, Amy. I am not from the South. I’m in DC. Things have definitely changed here since my childhood. As I said in my post, I certainly don’t judge other parents or think less of them for going with Ms. First Name. I just noticed the change in how we are addressed.

  9. In different cultures addressing an adult by their first name is the cultural norm and does not correlate with disrespect towards adults. D.C. is such a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds that it is not surprising to find differences such as these abound.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Selma. I wasn’t born in the US, so I’m attuned to cultural differences. And while I personally don’t feel disrespected when a child calls me by my first name, I do value the more formal approach. My point was not to say that kids are intentionally disrespecting adults by calling them by Mr./Mrs. First Name, especially considering many adults prefer to be addressed in that manner. My point is however, that children show less respect for adults today than they did, say 25 years ago… And I am teaching my kids that the very first interaction they have with adults is to address them as Mr./Mrs. Last Name (unless otherwise directed by the adult) because it shows a level of respect.

  10. I remember when I was of babysitting age in the mid-80’s, the parents I babysat for insisted I call them by their first name. I was always taught to use Mr/Mrs but I didn’t want to displease them so I was in a quandary. I felt uncomfortable calling them by their first name but what was I supposed to do when they kept insisting? I guess part of my point is that as adults, we need to help bring this trend back by correcting kids if they use our first name (which can be uncomfortable too!). I think for parents in their 20’s and early 30’s, it makes them feel old which has lead to the Miss First Name trend.

    1. Hi Holli! Thanks so much for the comment. I think you’re right that people feel “old” when they are called by their surname because I’ve heard that quite a bit. I believe kids should respect that, the way you did as a child :) And, yes, correcting kids by asking them to address us by our last name is a good solution, if that’s how we want to called. Thanks for stopping by!

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