I admit to feeling a bit prickly when my six-year-old’s friends casually call me “Karen”. My initial reaction is to haughtily ask them if they don’t mean “Mrs. Vatz”, but then an even stronger aversion kicks in and stops me. I am not Mrs. Vatz. That was my mom, and she was much older then than I am now... Actually, she was several years younger than I am now. But still, “Mrs.” sounds so old, so outdated, and I don’t relate to that title at all.
When I was a kid, we all called our friends’ parents “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, just as my parents’ did when they were kids. In fact, my dad still refers to his boyhood friend’s mom with the title “Mrs.” The formality between a child and an adult was a pretty stable cultural norm. But now, I don’t know any kids who use “Mrs.” and “Mr.”, other than to address their schoolteachers. It seems that norm has dissolved, leaving an awkward lack of formality where there should be at least something to indicate a difference in age and social rank between children and adults.
This new norm – or lack thereof – is difficult for me as a mom. It feels too formal to insist my children use “Mrs.” and “Mr.” – I know I don’t want to be addressed that way. But I’m not comfortable having my four- and six-year-old call adults by their first name. I want some degree of respect embedded in my children’s speech towards other adults. Beyond a marker of respect, using some sort of title establishes that the adult is a responsible being with whom a child can simply be a child. In other words, a title offers a sense of authority that I think children find reassuring. I also think children, at least my children, appreciate the distance it establishes, as though it relieves them of the pressure to hold their own socially with adults before they are ready. But perhaps I am reading too much into it, or perhaps I am just more traditional that I thought.
Still, I find myself searching for a contemporary alternative to “Mrs.” and “Mr.” At first glance, the “Miss + first name” option seems like a nice middle ground. I could accept being “Miss. Karen”, and my kids would be comfortable calling my friends “Miss. ____”. However, I’ve found the population to be split on this – with half my friends embracing it as the right balance of casual-formal, and the other half deeming it a lame pseudo-formality that comes across as too “pre-school”. Therefore, I’ve ruled out that option; it’s just too confusing for me – let alone for my kids – to remember who prefers “Miss” and who doesn’t.
So for now, and as long as our society is lacking a widely-accepted title for children to use when addressing adults in their life, I am forced into a too casual norm, with the first-name basis being the least awkward option. But I’m not entirely happy with it.
What do you have your children call other adults? Do you agree that no title is too casual? Or are you comfortable - even happy- with this norm? I'd love to hear how others feel about it!