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How Should Kids Address Adults? It's Time for Mrs. and Mr. to Make a Comeback.

How Should Kids Address Adults? It’s Time for Mrs. and Mr. to Make a Comeback.

By Kelcey Kintner

When I was a kid – back when folks drank Tab and thought their Magic Eight balls were totally accurate – everyone called adults by their last names. There was no question of what to call the parents of my friends. It was Mrs. Brownson or Mrs. Biondino or Mrs. Pratt.

I could never have imagined calling these moms or any other adult by their first names.

In fact, when I was in my twenties, I ran into Mrs. Brownson one day and she suggested I start calling her Michelle. Michelle? Who the heck was Michelle? She was Mrs. Brownson! I did as she asked but it never felt quite right. She’ll always be Mrs. Brownson to me.

Then I got older and had my own children. And then these children started talking! Suddenly I, and other new moms, were faced with the issue of what should our children call other adults. At the time, it seemed ridiculous to have some 3 year old playmate call me Mrs. anything. I’m not a Mrs! It sounded stuffy, formal and well, made me feel old. So my children’s playmates called me by my first name. Most moms I knew went this direction as well.

And it seemed to work just fine. At least at first. But you know how kids keep having a knack for getting older. Well, it’s one thing to have a preschooler call me Kelcey. And quite another to have a 10 year old who is almost towering over me. There are now neighborhood kids who will waltz into my house with a laid back “Hey Kelcey!” and somehow it just feels too casual. And what happens when these kids are teenagers?

When a child calls an adult by their last name – it’s a sign of respect. Something I think I have lost by letting my kids’ friends call me by my first name. Because these children are not my friends. They are not my equals. I do have one tween who calls me “Ms. Kelcey” which seems like a nice Southern compromise. But most of them just call me “Kelcey.” And the truth is – I’ve earned the title of Mrs. or Ms. something. I’m an adult. I work hard. I take care of people. I have wrinkles that need Botox. I deserve respect.

But how to change course now?! It seems so awkward to suddenly start demanding a more formal title like I have been knighted or something.

I think I’ll have to start fresh when my kids make new friends or change schools. Until then I’m just Kelcey. For better or for worse.

Note: The names (other than my own) in this piece have been changed. 

Kelcey Kintner
About the Author

Kelcey Kintner

Kelcey Kintner, an award winning journalist and freelance writer, is a fashion critic for US Weekly, created the humor blog 

Kelcey Kintner, an award winning journalist and freelance writer, is a fashion critic for US Weekly, created the humor blog The Mama Bird Diaries and writes for the Huffington Post. You can follow her @mamabirddiaries or on Facebook. She’s still trying to fit 5 kids on a Vespa. 

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Comments

  • A

    1. I really liked the poll.
    2. Point of referencreference i am21.
    Growing up, all adults were mr and mrs. My neighbors did not like that but we compromised on mr and mrs mans first name for each side.
    Everyone else that started out in this town calls everyone by their first names. I can’t even imagine it now. Adults i grew up with are still mr and mrs. Its more respectful, at least thats what i was taught.

  • Caroline

    Where I live, in South Africa, it’s quite traditional to call adults ”aunty” or ”uncle”, so you’d be ”Aunty Kelcey” for example. My mum is British and strongly objected to my calling people who were not my actual aunt or uncle by those names, but it is standard and a term of respect, whilst still using first names. It’s an Afrikaans thing originally I think, when an older person, an adult, whoever they are is addressed as Oom or Tannie by any significantly younger person, even if they are strangers. It’s just a respectful handle. I quite like it and my kids do it!

  • Amy X

    I don’t have children yet – but I totally agree with this. While I don’t think I would want to be called Mrs. X, I do think that Amy is way to informal given the relationship (or lack of one). 

    I used to teach dance at a local studio and we had the kids call us Miss Amy or Miss Brittany. It was a great compromise between respect and informality. I believe I’ll stick with it when the time comes.

  • Renee

    I am Canadian/American dual citizen who now lives in the Southern United States.  Growing up in Canada it was primarily Mr/Mrs Last Name with some variations to first name depending on relationship.  It sometimes felt right and sometimes felt too stuffy.

    Now that I live in the South I find the honorific Miss/Mr First Name really works well in most situations.  It’s used in professional situations to superiors, casual settings to significantly older persons (than the person doing the addressing), or in situations where Mr/Mrs Last Name isn’t quite appropriate – ie. Mrs. Brown for a grade school teacher vs. Miss Samantha for a pre-school teacher. It tends to solve the issue regardless of age – so there is no weird transition as you age and the relationship changes slightly.

  • CSmith

    In the deep south, where I live, children rarely call adults by their first name alone. If it’s a stranger or someone they rarely see it’s always Mr. or Mrs. Last Name. If it’s someone they see often such as a friend’s parent or a Sunday School teacher it’s common to use Mr. or Mrs. and their first name. My kid’s call their friend’s parents Mr. Kevin, Miss Kim, etc. Family members are often called Aunt and Uncle even if they’re not technically.My kids call my cousins Aunt Meg and Uncle Scott. 

    • Since moving to Georgia I’ve really come to appreciate this “Miss/Mister Firstname” convention, even though I though it was a little silly at first. It really does seem to bridge that gap between the formality of last names and the casualness of just a first name. Plus I think “Miss Mir” in a drawl is just funny. 😉

      • Lindsay

        They do the Ms/Mr FirstName at my daycare (and I’m in Los Angeles, so decidedly not southern). My kid is only 8 months, so calling adults anything has not come up yet, but I think I like the way they do it there so plan to follow suit. That method has the additional added benefit of not needing to deal with the fact that many families (mine included) have people with multiple last names. It doesn’t usually bother me to be called by my husband’s last name (I didn’t change my name), but I’d never ASK someone to intentionally call me the wrong name (and if I didn’t, I’m sure my name would be hard to remember since it doesn’t match my kid’s!). This avoids the whole issue!

    • Kate

      That’s exactly what we do. My and my husbands’ adult cousins are “Aunt/Uncle First name” and friends are Mr/Ms First Name.” 

  • Arialvetica

    Mrs Johnson seems too much to ask of a 1 year old, and I’m not sure how to ask a child who met my family at age 1 (and is now 3+) to start calling me Mrs. Johnson instead of Mary.  And if I allow one of my child’s friends to call me Mary, it would be awkward to insist that any new friends call me Mrs. Johnson. Basically, I really *like* the *idea* of my son’s friends calling me Mrs. Johnson, but I don’t know how to make it happen.

    (Fake names used for illustrative purposes.)

  • Bethany

    We usually said Miss/Mr Firstname for people we knew well or Mr./Mrs./Miss Lastname for people we didn’t. (Added benefit of this system: less confusion when your closest friends at church have extremely similar last names!) In my husband’s culture of origin (Middle East), a child calls adult females Auntie Firstname and adult males Ammo (AH-moh), or uncle Firstname.

  • Ally

    We live in the south and it’s almost always Ms/Mr. Firstname. All of the teachers go by Miss as well (it was weird at first). 

  • Ellen W

    I grew up in Texas and used Mr./Miss “First Name” for friends of parents and neighbors unless told otherwise. Also yes ma’am and yes sir were standard for addressing adults. My kids were born in Montana which is less formal and we were about the only parents who had our boys add Miss/Mr to adults’ names. Now we are back in Texas and I feel like there is a higher expectation for politeness than in Montana.

  • Maggie

    We used the Aunt/Uncle titles for our friends parents growing up, and it worked well enough. I really like the Mrs.Firstname/Mr.Firstname idea though, will have to start that with my kids.

  • Becky

    I don’t have kids of my own, but have worked as a dance teacher and now volunteer as a Girl Scout leader. I’ve never wanted to be called by my last name – partly because it seemed way too formal and partly because my last name is difficult for even adults to get correct.

    But I also agree that sometimes just the first name can come off just a little too casual. I started going by Miss Becky because it was the convention at the studio where I worked, and it just stuck well — it’s still casual but also conveys that I’m in a position of authority.

  • Ali

    Another Southerner here! We follow Ms./Mr. first name for people around my age (or really anyone under 50 or so). Then, we typically use last names for older adults (but then again, I call most older adults I know outside of a work setting Mr./Ms. last name, too).

  • April_S

    Right now I’m most comfortable just being called “April,” but I wonder whether that will change as it did for you? My daughter is 18 months old, and we’re teaching our playgroup friends to use either “Firstname” or “Mama Firstname” if we’re really close (some of us spend more time together than apart).  

    The neighborhood kids also hang out at our house, (ages 7-10), and they just call me April. I’ve never even thought twice about it.  Ms. April would be ok, but Mrs. Lastname would be weird. But then again, I’m a 3rd generation Californian. We might be overly casual over here. 

  • Fiona

    I’ve grown up in the Caribbean with a British Mum, it has always been Mr. & Mrs. for those we didn’t know and Uncle & Aunty for those we did. It’s a respect thing for us. I would never, and still wouldn’t, dream of calling an older person by their first name for fear of someone telling my mother and getting clap around the ears!

    My children and their friends all do the same, although I’m often knows as “C’s mum”.

  • Lauren

    I grew up in the NYC area and it was ALWAYS mrs & mr last name. My sister’s friend (in their 50s) still call my parents mr & mrs last name. I moved to TX after I got married and had 2 kids and conformed to their ms. First name. Then moved to the Deep South and had another baby so have solidified the ms. First name. Now that my oldest child has friends coming over and saying “hey Lauren, I’m hungry” it seems too causal. Even though the mrs, last name seemed weird at first, I would prefer it in the long run but it seems out of place here. I’m excited to move back to the north east and start over as mrs.
    last name since my kids are getting older!

    Love this post!

  • Growing up in the north I mostly addressed older people by Mr./Mrs. Last Name.  A few of my parents close friends we did call Aunt/Uncle First Name.  As I grew up I do remember trying to figure out where exactly on the family tree these aunts and uncles belonged.  

    Now I live in the south and I think Ms./Mr. First Name is a good option.  

  • IrishCream

    To my mind, respect is shown by how you treat people, not what you call them. What matters is that the children in my life are polite, friendly, and cooperative.

    Also, I don’t appreciate being called Mrs.; I go by Ms. when I’m being formal but prefer going by my first name by in large. Etiquette-wise it’s best to ask first how someone would like to be addressed.

    • This is exactly what I was going to say.

      It’s not the first-name-calling that’s the problem, in my opinion; it’s the waltzing in, dropping a cursory “Hey…” without attempting to have a brief exchange with your friend’s parent. When I was a kid I always made a point of thanking the parent for letting me come over, or letting them know what great game we were playing before scampering off!

      My daughter’s friends will call me Lauren unless something in their culture prefers they call me something else, like Lauren Aunty, or Miss Lauren.

  • Kate G

    I hate being called Mrs. DaughtersLastName, mostly because I am NOT Mrs. Anything. Neither my husband nor I changed our last names, and our kids have hyphenated last names. 

    I certainly don’t expect anyone else to know or care about this, as it was a personal decision, but it means that I prefer being called by my first name, especially since younger kids don’t understand “Ms”. Truly, the fact that they call me by my name and not “Kid’s Mom” is good enough. 🙂

    For reference, I’m in New England. Preschool teachers tend to be called Miss Heather or Mr Andrew, grade school teachers by title and last name, but by high school and college it seems to be a mixed bag depending on student and faculty preferences.

    Conventions are nice, because they make it one less thing you have to think about, but as with everything else these days, individual choice and preference is able to guide rather than “the rules”. 

    Happy New Year!

  • Corinne

    Maybe this is a somewhat unique problem, but my husband and I are both in academia (he has his Ph.D., I’m finishing my dissertation).  Many of our friends also have Ph.D.s. This makes the “Miss/Ms./Mrs./Mr.” title kind of odd. Their title is “Dr.” not “Miss/Ms./Mrs./Mr.”  But calling them Dr. Lastname seems so overly formal. Growing up, we called parents friends whatever they wanted to be called. For most of them, that was their first names. We try to teach our son to do the same. Some of our friends prefer the Ms/Mr. Firstname (and one of them has her Ph.D. so we do Dr. Firstname for her and they do Dr. Firstname for my husband). Our son’s preschool teachers do Ms. Firstname. With some of our close friends, we do Auntie and Uncle. We would never insist on being called by our last names. In part because we have a very long, very Italian last name that our 3yo is still trying to learn how to say. And the college students we teach often have trouble with it.  It seems cruel to make our child’s friends struggle through it on a regular basis. 

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  • Capt. FluffyBunny

    I’m joining your comments late, but I agree with your sentiment. I believe American society has really devalued age and the wisdom that accrues with experience. There was a large shift in the 90s, prioritizing children’s needs over adults’ needs and I think we are dealing with the consequences. This isn’t to say that young people don’t bring a much needed fresh perspective–they do–but we currently act as though we value the thoughts and opinions of children and teenagers more than that of adults. While it’s a small formality, bringing back Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. are ways of respecting the wisdom that comes with age.

    My knowledge has changed so much with age and with having children and a job and the responsibilities that go with caring for others. It’s had a huge impact on my worldview. I am far more knowledgeable and wise at 40 than I was at 20. I don’t want to be treated as the intellectual equal of a ten year old. There’s a massive shift in perspective that comes with age and that I think deserves acknowledgment.