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Children’s Etiquette: How Should Kids Address Adults?

Children’s Etiquette: How Should Kids Address Adults?

The onset of legitimate conversation and talking with Liam has caused a few questions to come up that I hadn’t really pondered before. Besides the fact that he’s a total parrot, making it suddenly very important to watch what is said in front of him lest it be shared with the world, it also brings up the issue of what he’s going to call people. When he first started talking, it was all about learning the names of family members who relished in him knowing and using their name. With that came cute little nicknames (Auntie Sara became Auntie Rara) and less cute nicknames (Auntie Ash became…well, let just say he had trouble with h’s at first). Now that he’s mastered the names of his inner circle, I find myself frequently wondering what he should be calling people in the “second tier” – mostly adult friends and extended family.

To exemplify my point, our neighbors are a very sweet older couple. The husband, Brian, is usually arriving home the same time we are each day. Liam has taken to walking over to say hi and showing him whatever truck or animal he has with him at the time. No matter how much we try to get Liam to call him Mr. C., Liam squeals for Brian each day as we get home (or occasionally Mr. Brian in an effort to try to conform to our guidelines, I suppose). Thankfully Brian has told us he doesn’t mind at all and just thinks it’s cute that Liam comes over to say hi, but I can’t help but wonder what the right protocol is here. Thinking back to my own childhood, it seems like a pretty mixed bag. I called some adults by their first name and others by their last name (in some cases, I still do) and my parents were of little help determining why that was the case.

toddler boy eating breakfast

Should he call every adult Mr., Mrs. or Ms.? Should it be dictated by age (it would seem odd for him to call friends of mine by their last name, but maybe it’s more respectful for someone a generation older)? Should we ask people what they prefer to be called? And, do we need to then start calling them by that name in front of Liam? I’m big on teaching manners so it seems crazy to focus so much time and energy on please and thank you and not have a plan for politely referring to adults.

So blog readers, help a parent out. How did you decide what your kids would call the adults in your life?

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14 comments

  1. Kate September 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    First of all, I have to tell you how much I enjoy your posts, Rookie Mom! Our sons are about the same age so I feel like I have lots in common with you. 🙂

    This is a great question and one that I’ve also wrestled with. Unfortunately I think there might not be one perfect standard, but something that has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

    I really like your “one generation ahead” guideline because it would make sense to be more formal with those people.

    Many of our friends have their kids refer to me as “Mrs. Teece” and I do think that is awkward. Then I tried calling another peer “Mrs.” and she corrected me, saying that that made her feel like she was in her classroom. Fortunately most of our friends have kids also, so we have decided to refer to those friends as “Billy’s mommy”, etc.

    When in doubt, I guess it never hurts to be over-polite. I guess we can take cues from how people introduce themselves and sign emails, etc.

    • Kate

      Kate September 6, 2013 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks so much, Kate! So glad (and reassured!!) that you can relate with a little guy the same age.

      I agree about what you said about yourself–I feel really uncomfortable when a friend told her son to call me Mrs. Freeman. Are you looking for my MIL? 🙂

      Totally agree about erring on the side of politeness and following other people’s leads/asking when in doubt.

  2. Marsha September 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    I feel that all children should call adults by a Mr. Mrs. or Miss followed by either a first or last name. I think it puts the adult in the next level of authority. Friends call each other by their first names. Not children to adults. This is coming from a teacher. I think I get more respect from the children when they have to call me “Miss Marsha.”

  3. Kris-Ann, Progressive Mom

    Progressive Mom September 5, 2013 at 9:08 am

    We try and stick to an our friends, their friends rule. For example, anyone we were friends with before kids (college friends etc.) go by their first names. But parents of our children’s friends, as well as neighbors, are Mrs. and Mrs. So and So. We did have a neighbor who was our age and had kids the same ages as ours who referred to us in front of her kids as Miss Kris-Ann or Mr. Ian. We did the same when referring to her since clearly that’s what she preferred. I kind of liked that.

  4. Tara September 5, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    These comments are very interesting – cool discussion and thanks for the comments.

  5. Amy

    Amy September 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    I love this post and question because it’s one we struggle with as well. I always thought it so respectful that our neighbor’s children called us “Mrs.” and “Mr.” LAST NAME and wanted to do the same with our children. But then it didn’t quite work out so cleanly in each situation. Early on my daughter and I belonged to some regional play groups and the moms in that always insisted that the kids called them by their first name (I did the same). And in child care, the teachers also used their first names (both younger and older teachers). So it was hard to encourage the use of Mr. and Mrs. in those situations. I still try to encourage my children to call most adults we’re friendly with by Mr. or Mrs. FIRST NAME but it doesn’t always stick.

  6. Kate

    Kate September 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Such great comments! I like the “our friends, their friends” rule, Progressive Mom. The Mr./Mrs. FIRST NAME does seem like a good alternative but at the same time, I’ve had conversations with friends (all of us who are former teachers/instructors of various disciplines) and dislike being called Mrs./ Ms. FIRST NAME because it feels like a student/instructor thing to us. I have lots of name baggage, apparently!!

  7. Yolanda June 29, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    What is the best way to get my friends kids to address me as Ms or Mrs? To hear a 4 year old call me by only my first name is very off-putting, I don’t like it. I am not her peer! Should I get over it or do I ask her to call me “Miss Yolanda”???

    • Kate

      Kate June 30, 2014 at 9:50 am

      Hi Yolanda! I’m a firm believer that if you have an issue with it, address it with her parents first (rather than asking the child). Since writing this post we basically follow the first name for pre-kid friends and Ms/Mrs/Mr last name for post-kid friends–it seems to be what almost everyone prefers/is most comfortable with. BUT we do have an old friend who has asked to called Mrs. Last Name and we’ve totally respected that. So if it bothers you, absolutely say something to the parents (in a polite way) so they can then talk about it with their child. It’s a hard issue–I have as many friends who find it off-putting to be called something other than their first name as the other way around so I’m sure the parents in this case are trying to do the best they can and would be happy to change things up if they know it would make you more comfortable. Hope that helps!

  8. harley goff June 2, 2015 at 3:34 am

    I think it’z up to da individual what they prefer I prefer to be called harley ,but my daughter aana sumtime’z says mama .I hate being called Mr. And my friend Kenny iz my baby’s godfather but does nat like da god part lol so we say fader.it’s da dutch way of saying father .and kira and I are doing role reversal because of dcfs and da courts . my baby could call me my lord.but then I would haft to call her ure honour. If I waz to use titles I’d be OK wit sire.but kira’z mother get’z mad if aana calls me anything but dad or daddy I guess we could teach kids to bow and curtsi to show respect

  9. RD June 27, 2016 at 8:27 am

    I think Mr. or Ms. are signs of respect so if you force someone to be called that when they don’t want it – then it defeats the purpose. I also think asking someone outright to call you by title is odd – then it just becomes a name rather than a form of respect. I am a high school student and most of the adults I work with are fine being called by first name, and even some staff members in my school district. I understand having kids call authority by title though. For example, I teach younger kids at my church. In the classroom they call me by Mr and outside they call me by name. Sometimes it’s hard to draw the line and I either get called by first name in the classroom or by Mr outside and I never say anything. Ultimately I think the question is do you want the adult to be an authority. However – the adults preference should trump all.

  10. Lowell Taylor September 2, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    I was taught, and have always believed that children should refer to adults by Mr., or Mrs flooded by their last names, as a general rule. However, for more familiar adults, the child should refer to them as Mr., Mrs and their first name, provided the adult is comfortable with that, unless the adult request a specific reference, such as their first name only..

  11. Profile photo of SST

    SST October 2, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Going off this topic – I am having a bit of a problem. I teach a class for my church and the students are a few years younger than me – the oldest is 4 years younger and the youngest is 12 years younger. All of the other teachers are 6-40 years older than me. The students address all the other teachers as Mr. and Ms. both inside and outside of the classroom. The kids sometimes call me by title and sometimes call me just by name. The other teachers sometimes introduce me by title and sometimes by name. I don’t really care – I actually prefer being informal – but at least in the classroom I feel there should be consistency. So, if the other teachers are Mr. and Ms. then I feel I should be too. How should I address this? I don’t want to look like a jerk saying please call me Mr. Should I just let it go or should I address it somehow?

  12. Kristina Ashton November 2, 2016 at 10:31 am

    I have always liked the way I noticed the families at my church handle it. All adults are Mr/Ms FIRST NAME unless the child has a formalized relationship with the adult. A formalized relationship would be teacher, doctor, etc. Those adults are Mr/Ms LAST NAME. That’s it. So, my friends are Ms Melissa and Ms Katie. My daughter’s doctor is Dr. Natterer, her dentist is Dr. LaHue and her daycare director is Ms. Makarwich. An exception to this rule is that her teachers at daycare all go by first names. Since that is the culture of the daycare, I do not interfere. I do personally call them Ms FIRST NAME both to their faces and when we talk about them at home as an example to my daughter. This results in my daughter calling them Ms FIRST NAME more and more. The teachers have commented on how polite she is. I feel like this little thing colors the way they see her and how they respond to her. (Much like dressing her like Princess Charlotte makes people respond to her differently than when she is a hot mess.)

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