Making Kids Use 'Mr.' & 'Mrs.' Isn't Teaching Them Respect

Recently I met a 3-year-old who said, "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Dutton." I was floored -- my 4-year-old typically greets strangers with a stony silence and a suspicious stare. Still, what jarred me most about this kid's behavior was not just the level of courtesy, but how she addressed me as "Ms." followed by my last name


"We wanted to teach her to treat adults with respect," explained the 3-year-old's parents, who were all but bursting with pride at their daughter's overt display of manners.

At first, I'll admit, I was jealous. It also got me wondering: Should I coach my daughter to use "Mr./Mrs." too?

When I was growing up, I addressed ALL adults as "Mr. Jones" or "Ms. Smith." But apparently in one generation, the rules have changed. Taking my daughter to preschool, for instance, I was surprised to hear the teachers introduce themselves as "Angel" and "Odalys." Only one teacher of the bunch was called "Mr. Lu" -- an odd anomaly rather than the norm. 

I, too, was also guilty of introducing myself to kids as just "Judy," no "Ms." required. Should I introduce myself as "Ms. Dutton" to every kid I met? Nah -- kids might humor my odd request, but it would be a drop in a tidal wave of adults they knew on a first-name basis. Rather than start a revolution, I'd just be pegged as the weird mom on some kind of power trip, and that would be a major play date killer.

Still, I could drill the "Mr./Ms." lesson into my own daughter. For a day or so, I fantasized about how nice it would be to hear parents remark, "My, what a polite child!" to me, too. Still, the next time I encountered a real-life situation where I could have put this polite mannerism into practice, I caved. It just seemed too forced.

"This is my friend ... Carin," I told my daughter. And that was that -- once you're on a first name basis, you can't go back.

More from The Stir: How to Raise a Polite Kid: 10 Manners to Teach Them Now

I'm all for teaching my daughter to respect adults. But it won't come from making her use "Mr./Ms." with every person she meets. For one, I don't think my daughter respects Mr. Lu any more than her other teachers, as was made perfectly clear one day when she called him "Mr. Poo" with a giggle. I'm also down on honorifics because I believe that social etiquette can, and should, shift with the times. Not too long ago, even good friends addressed each other by their last names; Jane Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet called her friend and neighbor "Mr. Darcy" right on up until they were engaged -- and who knows, maybe even after that (what was that man's first name, anyway?).

So congratulations, parents of that 3-year-old, you've got a kid with an impressive parlor trick. Good manners in children are so rare these days, a little goes a long way. But while I admire your efforts, I won't be emulating them. It's quaint, and cute, but true respect runs deeper than a name -- first, last, with or without Mr. or Ms.

Do you think kids should address adults by their last name?


Image © Neil Guegan/Corbis

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