How do your kids address adults? Talk amongst yourselves.

David's quandary got me thinking about how children should address adults. My kids address the parents of their friends by their first names (because that's how the parents introduce themselves), but I insist that they use "Mr." and "Mrs." with elderly people and adults they don't know well. It gets us funny looks, but I think it's an important reminder to kids that a certain measure of respect simply comes with age.

It amazes me that the custom of addressing adults respectfully has all but died out in a single generation. When I was a kid, I NEVER used my friends' parents first names. My mom, despite being a laid-back, friendly, casual person, felt uncomfortable when my friends called her by her first name.

And yet, I don't want to be called "Mrs. Dornfest." I expect the respect, but I don't feel comfortable with the formality. Do these things go hand-in-hand?



  1. Sara in Austin says

    We’re relatively formal people, and Southern to boot, so we use “Miss” or “Mr” coupled with the first name. It strikes the right balance for us. It’s also comfortable for J. because that’s how the teachers at her school are addressed. Close family friends get upgraded to Aunt and Uncle. (Admittedly, J. doesn’t actually talk enough yet to use these form — this is just our plan.)

  2. Jeff says

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong, retro, or awkward about expecting to be called Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith. A different kind of name helps to reinforce the fact that the relationship between a kid and an adult is not the same as the relationship between peers. But if the full last name is a little too formal for you (or if it’s just hard for your younger visitors to pronounce), try going by just the first letter of your last name, as in “Mr. G”.

    Somehow I don’t think I could handle “Mr. Jeff” … it’d make me feel like I was working at a hair salon!

  3. Daniel Nicolas says

    I think it changes depending on what age you are, and what generation the person you are addressing is from.

    For me, as a kid everyone used mr/mrs lastname for everyone who wasn’t their parents.

    Then as everyone got older, it seems that instead of the parents looking down on us, they treated and gave us somewhat equal respect, and then it was suddenly comfortable to address adults by who I had previously called Mr. Lastname their whole lives, by their first name.

  4. Katherine says

    I should warn you, this is a bit of a soap box issue for me, so pardon the rant.

    I prefer Mr. or Mrs. with the last name. I am Southern and like Sara, I see a lot of Miss Katherine around here. However, I don’t really like it (although we sometimes do it). There is a difference between grownups and children that should be respected and encouraged. It was a very cool right of passage to get to call my parents friends by their first names. It was a sign that I really was grown up.

    If my college aged babysitters don’t call me Mrs. “Last Name” when I first use them, I won’t hire them again. To me it shows a lack of respect and manners that I don’t want passed on to my children. After we have used them for a while, then I ask them to call me by my first name, because at that point I know them.

  5. Daniel Nicolas says

    I think it changes depending on what age you are, and what generation the person you are addressing is from.

    For me, as a kid everyone used mr/mrs lastname for everyone who wasn’t their parents.

    Then as everyone got older, it seems that instead of the parents looking down on us, they treated and gave us somewhat equal respect, and then it was suddenly comfortable to address adults by who I had previously called Mr. Lastname their whole lives, by their first name.

  6. Kayla says

    Another Southerner here, but we use Mr/Mrs FirstName. But we are very big on answering adults with “ma’am” or “sir”. My husband is not too keen on it, but it’s something I think is very important for our family.

  7. Firinel says

    To me, it depends on the adult in question, the child, their relationship, and what the adult prefers. I personally don’t believe that just because someone is older than you it necessarily means you ought to respect them – I think teaching children that can be dangerous, to boot – nor do I think that using a title is necessarily a sign of respect, anyway. Respect to me is calling a person whatever it is that they prefer and honouring what all the individuals involved feel uncomfortable with, including the children.

  8. Judy says

    Another Southerner here — my kids use the traditional “Miss Laura” or “Mr. Jim” for my friends, and title/last name for teachers and other adults they don’t know well.

  9. Laura says

    We use “Auntie Heather” and “Uncle Eric” for our friends who are really not aunts and uncles, but since they are close and trusted friends it makes sense for the kids to call them that. I think many Asian cultures have a similar title for friends.

  10. Jill says

    A Yankee in the South here. I grew up calling familiar adults by their first names, but have found it to be inappropriate in the south. My chidren therefore use Miss/Mr Firstname with most adults. Ironically, I had a few college professors who asked to be called by their first names and I could never bring myself to do it!

  11. oddharmonic says

    Raised in New England, I grew up with Mr./Mrs. Lastname. Living in Texas now with my six-year-old, we use Mr./Mrs. Firstname in most cases and sir/ma’am.

  12. cw says

    I recall calling my parents’ friends by their first names (people I had known since birth). Then, when I was in about seventh grade, a wave of formality must have swept over the group because my parents asked us to address the friends by last names — and asked us to do it in front of the group of them. I recall looking agape at the group, searching for some support and having them all stare back at me blank-faced. It’s a humiliating memory twenty five years later. And I don’t think of myself as particularly sensitive. There are people from that time that I still cannot bring myself to use a first name for.

    With this in mind, I do ask my six year old to address OLDER adults by a last name. There is nothing wrong with starting out formal and downgrading. If I’m not sure, I say “this is Mrs. Smith” and let that adult have the opportunity to say, “Call me Jane!”

    School friends’ parents are informal. I haven’t met a parent yet who is a “Mrs.” and I would personally laugh aloud if addressed by my last name (my mother!) or my husband’s last name (his mother!).

  13. David Baker says

    I myself call everyone Mr, Miss, Mrs (or Ms. if I don’t know status) until they tell me to call them something else. I expect my son to do the same thing.

  14. Mike says

    I’m a firm believer in Mr./Ms. until introduced, and then whatever the grownup wants after that. We’re first name with all of our friend’s kids. I am not offended if they wish to (or are expected to) call me Mr., and I’ll expect my kids to call the parents Mr./Mrs. in those cases.

    It’s surprisingly easy to keep track of.

  15. steph says

    I have been using the Miss Firstname convention for new introductions (close friends are Firstname only or Aunt/uncle Firstname), but honestly… I hate all that. I am in Alabama, and I’ve always hated that and the ma’am/sir thing. I think you can be respectful and still go by plain old first names. But then, what do I know – my kid is 4. I may feel very different about this when my kid is 14… For now, we go with the convention because it is expected – at school and socially when outside of our circle of friends – but it still makes me feel weird.

  16. Amberlynn Lane says

    Yup, I’d say it’s more a locational thing than a generational thing. I hated being introduced as “Miss Amber” when I lived in the South East. I much prefer the Western simple “Amber.”

    I’ll call someone whatever they introduce themselves as, or a formal Mr. or Mrs. until asked to do otherwise. The important thing is to then *do as asked.*

  17. Mom101 says

    I was raised to believe that respect was a matter of honoring people’s wishes – in this case, calling people what they’d like to be called.

    So if you are more comfortable being called Asha, that would be the respectful term. If your sweet elderly neighbor perfers Mrs. Johnson, than that would be the proper name.

    My mom never liked being called “Mrs. G–” She felt that was her MIL’s name. Heh.

  18. Christy says

    I guess I have to admit I never got why people have a problem with first names. Why is it, at a root level, why “Mrs. Jones” is seen as respectful when “Nancy” isn’t? Nancy is her name, not a nickname or a slang term. It’s not like calling some one “girlfriend.”

    I guess I care more about respectful behavior, manners, etc. that are meaningful. I guess I would rather have a kid be polite and conscientious and call me Christy than call me “Ms. Kilgore” and roll their eyes.

    That said, if someone preferred to be called by a title like that, I would never tell my kids not to respect their wishes.

  19. Jamie says

    For people my daughter doesn’t know well, we do a weird hybrid “Mr./Mrs. [First Name]” thing. So Jane Smith is “Miss Jane” or Bob Smith is “Mr. Bob.” No good reason, it just seems to strike the right balance.

    Of course, I still make my daughter call me “Dr. Madigan” all the time. I didn’t go to grad school for nothing, you know. ;)

  20. Shelbi says

    Mr./Mrs. sir/ma’am are requirements for my 9 year old & 5 year old whenever they address an adult. If the adult asks to be called by his/her first name I allow that because is makes the adult more comfortable, but I still insist that my children use sir/ma’am. I am not from the South, but I must say that “good ‘ole southern values” are something that we are really starting to miss in this country. I really think that this comes down to respect, a child must respect adults, and using a different form of address than is used with their peers, I believe, helps the child understand this. Additionally, as adults we still use titles to show respect and honor to other adults … Dr. Jones, Judge Smith, Rev. Walters, etc.

  21. Steph. says

    This is so ironic, I was just thinking about this tonight when I was needing to introduce my kids to a church member. I decided to go with “Ms. Brown” versus Ms. Kathy, like I would do for a good adult friend of ours. My kids are still pretty young, 7 and 2, but I think once they get to middle school age, I’ll talk to them about going by the last name mainly. It’s cute when a little kid calls your friend Miss Susan, but with older kids it seems disrespectful for some reason. A double-standard? Maybe, but that’s just how it is around here.

    Now, my big issues–respectful teens in the retail industry who call me “ma’am.” It makes me feel SO OLD! HA!

  22. Carrie says

    Teaching a child to show respect for adults is dangerous? Where is the rolling eyes emoticon?

    I teach my children to respect everyone, not just adults, however, respect and honor are part of a civilized society. They call adults they don’t know well Sir or Ma’am or Miss or Mister.

    They certainly aren’t being raised to think that showing respect means that anyone can overstep their boundaries. That has nothing to do with how they refer to someone. Please.

  23. duchess says

    A little late to be chiming in, but we’ve been teaching our son to call everyone Auntie/Uncle even if they weren’t related. We are used to it, mainly because our culture turns everyone in to “family.”

    I called my friend’s parents mr/mrs last-name, because I didn’t want to use first names, and we will be teaching the same process to our kids, if they aren’t close enough to become Aunt/Uncle.

    We referred to the babysitters as “Apa” (sister) or “Chachi” (aunt) and the babysitters didn’t mind.

    When we are outside and we meet with older children, my son learns their names and the word “bhai” or “apa” (brother/sister) appended to it.

  24. Michelle says

    Well, we live in the northwest and we require that our daughter addresses all “grown-ups” by their title (Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Lastname). Not only that, but our friends require it of their kids as well. These kids are growing up with the understanding that this is the norm and it fosters a sense of respect for parents and their authority and wisdom.

  25. donna says

    I’m a big fan of the southern custom of Miss or Mr. Firstname, particularly when I introduce an adult as Mrs. Smith, and the adult counters with “Oh, no, that’s my mother;s name, call me Pansy.” I’ll refer to her to the children as Miss Pansy, and everyone seems happy.

    I am very firmly in the camp of those who believe that children should not be addressing adults by their first names. I find it beyond impolite.


  26. Margaret says

    We live in NYC and it seems respectful speech is almost passe. We are raising our son to use Mr./Ms. (or Aunt/Uncle for close friends). None of our friends are doing the same and we have been made fun of for it. I just thinhk it is one aspect of a larger issue. Children might have trouble respecting adults if they are taught to address them as peers.

    Around here though (in the very liberal nabe of Park Slope), parents are very new-agey and try too hard to be their child’s friend. Wow, does that seem to backfire!

  27. Firinel says

    Carrie: Teaching a child to respect someone purely because they are an adult is dangerous. Though I agree that being raised to be respectful is not necessarily the same as being raised to think that adults can overstep their boundaries – it often IS taught that way. I also don’t believe that teaching children to refer to adults by sir/ma’am necessarily has anything to do with respectful, either.

    It’s fine to disagree with one another, but rolling your eyes isn’t. It’s not respectful either, and it sort of dampens the entire point of your comment, ironically.

  28. Sara in Austin says

    Wow, what a fun discussion. It’s interesting how region plays such a role in this.

    I wanted to point out one other thing — I often call my daughter “Miss J” — respect is a two way street. There were a number of parents of friends who called me Miss Sara when I was growing up, and I still think it is cool and respectful.

  29. Anji says

    I’m British. My son is being brought up to know my friends as “Uncle” or “Aunty” firstname, because that’s respectful without being too formal. With other adults I think I’ll encourage him to ask what they would prefer to be called.

  30. Katy says

    Regarding respect vs. formality: I expect that discomfort with the formality is something that would fade, if given time. It’s like forming a new habit; you need to adapt to your new role as an adult interacting with children.

    I know I am still adjusting to the change in role, and my oldest is 6.

  31. Chris Moseley says

    “You guys” must live in the north. Lots of kids in Texas are still taught to respect their elders by addressing them as Mr. & Mrs. and by saying yes, ma’am; no, sir…and most importantly, remembering to say please and thank you.

  32. Progressive Mom says

    I’m an African American mom of 2 and I refuse to require my kids to call adults by Ms or Mr, despite what they request. Firstly, I refuse to instill a value in my kids that I don’t believe in. Secondly, it’s an archaic and antiquated way to make someone show respect to you. My kids are extremely well behaved and respectful and I refuse to have them demeaned by anyone who’s not either giving them a grade or giving them a physical exam!
    Often when folks ask me to tell my kids to call them Ms or Mr I say, “Can you explain? I’ve never heard of that.” Which, by the way, I never grew up calling any adult by anything other than their first name. I have been praised by my parent’s friends as respectful and well-behaved. I’m now 34 and I still call them ‘first name.’ Never heard any complaints. Most folks can’t even tell you why they want you to call them Ms/Mr. There’s no logic behind hit. Just plain oppression of young kids. I tell my kids that they don’t have to call anyone Ms/Mr except their teacher and that instead just don’t address them by any name. They can make their own decision when they get older. However, I refuse to instill a racist, classist, agist habit in them that I totally disagree with. So for all of you conservative Southerners and Northerners – take that! Just another philosophy to consider.

  33. Trey says

    My kids are required to answer all adults by saying yes sir, no sir or yes ma’am, no ma’am. Manners are very important and showing respect is a requirement for my children. I have three well mannered boys ages 10, 13, and 16.

  34. Trey says

    My kids are required to answer all adults by saying yes sir, no sir or yes ma’am, no ma’am. Manners are very important and showing respect is a requirement for my children. I have three well mannered boys ages 10, 13, and 16.

  35. Dan says

    We live in the Midwest and my wife and I have taught our three boys to use sir and ma’am when addressing an adult. They are required to say yes sir, no sir, and yes ma’am, no ma’am at weather they are home, school, church, friends, relatives,etc. Just good old fashioned respect and manners

  36. Jenn Todd says

    Our kids are also required to use “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing or answering adults. I was not so big on this but my husband would not have it any other way, so our children were taught this from the time they could speak. I must say they are very polite and well mannered. We get complements from teachers, other parents etc. all the time.