Can I Call You Joe?
February 21st, 2011

Say what you will about her politics (actually, don’t – this isn’t that kind of blog), but Sarah Palin is a woman of the times.  At the start of her much ballyhooed debate with Joe Biden in 2008 she broke the ice by asking the lifelong senator if she could address him by his first name.  Pundits made hay out of this for days afterward.  Was it strategic?  Was she trying to throw him off his game?  Was it disrespectful? And so on.  But while the answers to those questions may be interesting, there’s another element of this cultural moment that intrigues me.

Is this just what we do now?

I ask this question not with accusation, but with genuine curiosity.  I also ask this question because I need advice.

When I was a kid all adults were Mr. or Mrs.  There were a couple of notable exceptions – adults whose families were very close to mine and for whom exceptions were granted.  But these numbered two or three at most.  Everyone else – friends’ parents and parents’ friends – was addressed by their last name.  GAP’s upbringing was the same on this count.

Today, however, it feels like Mr. and Mrs. are slipping away.  I see it in myself as well as in my friends.  Most of us have very young children - all but a couple are under the age of three – so language skills are still in the works.  But I see a trend emerging.  When speaking to our kids we refer to our friends by their first names.  “IEP, if you want a cookie you have to ask Beth nicely.”  “Can you say hi to Laura?”  “Tell Gale thank you.”

I think part of the reason we do this is because we (the adults) feel awkward addressing our friends as Mr. and Mrs.  We help our children stumble their way through conversations, and sometimes end up doing a fair amount of the talking for them.  (Not ideal, but sometimes practicality wins the day.)  Our kids are still little.  And while the examples we set today do matter, at this age it takes a lot of repetition to get something to stick.  We feel like we have time to course correct when the kids are a little bit older.

The other reason?  Peer pressure.  Or perhaps better stated, inertia.  I want my children to address adults by last name.  But I am self-conscious about being the first to take the plunge.  When hanging out with other families, if I am the only parent insisting on Mr. and Mrs. nomenclature do I look like a high-maintenance snoot?  Do I cause the other parents to feel self-conscious about their more casual approach?  Do I throw a wrench in a perfectly acceptable social equilibrium just because I have traditional notions about adult/child interaction?

GAP and I have talked about this.  We have agreed on the Mr. and Mrs. convention.  But in social settings we both slip into first-name mode with IEP.  Though we haven’t talked about this inconsistency (we certainly will now!) I think part of it is practical.  IEP is only now beginning to put words together.  First names are often shorter and easier than last names.  Adding Mr. and Mrs. to the mix just complicates things further for him.  For the moment, if we want him to have a chance at success in speaking to adults first names are the way to go.  But when do we make the switch?

So I come to you today with these questions:  How do you handle this?  If your kids use first names with adults, why?  If your kids use Mr. and Mrs. with adults, why?  And at what age did you begin enforcing that?  Does anyone else feel like they’re walking against the flow of traffic on this issue?

Most of the time I feel like I have a decent grip on parenthood.  Then something small comes along and trips me up.

24 Responses to “Can I Call You Joe?”

  1. e Says:

    After thinking about this, I think the appropriate time to start saying Mr. or Mrs. is now. If it’s harder to pronounce, so be it. I’m pretty sure none of us say to a toddler – “Look, there goes a wee-ooo-wee-ooo.” We refer to it as a firetruck even if it’s a bit hard to say. Show me a 4 year old that doesn’t say triceratops and I’ll be surprised. So I say – go ahead and put it out there. You may be surprised. Consistency is the name of the game with little ones so if Mr. and Mrs. is your thing (and I totally agree that respect is the way to go), go for it and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised that your friends will follow your lead in no time.

  2. Jenny Says:

    Interesting conundrum and one that I have spent clock cycles deliberating as well.
    As you well know, I too called all our friends parents and parents friends by Mr and Mrs last name. I have always wanted my kids to be well mannered and this was an obvious first step. But it didn’t take long to see that in today’s more casual social climate, my kids were the exception to the rule.
    Besides extremely close friends, I began having PAL address adults as we did. I have even attempted to instill the very southern practice of answering “yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir”. However, I quickly noticed that the practice wasn’t reciprocated. Literally never. Then, when PAL started preschool this year and we were constantly intertwined with children and adults with whom we had no previous relationship, it became overly apparent that my attempts at politeness werent today’s “normal”.

  3. Jenny Says:

    Sorry hit send before I was finished…
    Anyway, the point was, in an effort not to make PAL uncomfortable in social situations, I have cooled off on what seems to have become somewhat of archaic practice.
    We choose to address those parents by Miss first name or Mr first name. Good compromise, I think! I still get my Mr and Mrs and PAL is still following social norms! (and btw, she still answers “yes ma’am, no ma’am” etc as well–how can that ever be wrong???).

  4. Gale Says:

    Jenny – Interesting. I’m surprised that even in the school context things are so casual. Does PAL call her teachers Mr. or Mrs? I am also on board with the “yes ma’am, yes sir” practice. I may be going against the grain witht that one, but so be it.

    One thing that has interested me about this is that with older kids I’ve observed more Mr. and Mrs. habits. At our gym (which is a community center and attached to the high school) there are kids and families coming and going all the time. Based on what I’ve observed there it seems that older kids (ages nine or 10 and up) do use last names. That’s what got me wondering if the first name thing was merely a toddler issue. I will be interested to see where other commenters land.

  5. Jenny Says:

    Both the teacher and asst in her classroom at MC are called Mrs last name by the students. In fact, everyone at school is called Mrs or Mr whatever. But, this brings up another question. Do I address the teachers and administrators by their first name or show respect for their position by using something more formal? L and I have discussed this a million times and we don’t know what’s appropriate….the teacher signs her emails to me from ” Karen” yet I feel very uncomfortable calling her that. Is that strange!?!?

    There were several meet and greets before the school year began this year and I can’t count the times I introduced myself to potential playmates of PALs by saying “hi, this is PAL and I am Mrs L…” and literally every time, the other mother would say “hi, I’m Cindy and this is my daughter Sally”. It got to the point where I was embarrassed and uncomfortable.

    It’s interesting that you ask about the older kids. As you know, NGL is 11 and yes, he mostly refers to his friends parents with the Mr and Mrs last name. I dont know if its because he goes to a different school than P does or if it’s just a shift in the last ten years. I tend to explain it as the latter because his school is much more casual and “country” than where P spends her days. To confuse the situation even more, oddly enough, he calls some of the assistants and administrators at the school by their first names. Doesn’t make sense….

  6. Anne Says:

    You know, I was with some friends over the holidays who (in front of their 1 and a half year old) called me “Mrs.” I was sorta surprised, but also really appreciated it. I felt like “oh good…now if I want my kid to address them as “mr” or “mrs”, I won’t be the first!” So, in a way, it could be refreshing for others if you just get the ball rolling.

    With that said, I have no idea what we’ll do. As you might imagine, this isn’t so much done on the west coast…even people my age who grew up out here tended towards the first-name thing. This may be just one of those midwest social graces that I drag out here no matter how weird and formal it makes me seem.

    At the very least, the friends can quickly say “call me ___”, and then IEP learns that rule of politeness.

  7. Jack Says:

    When I was a child we addressed adults by their last name, but like you I see first names being used all of the time. Most of the time when my kids meet a “new adult” they introduce themselves with their own first name so it kind of defeats my trying to teach them to use last names.

  8. Gale Says:

    Jenny – Thinking back on my own childhood, I know that my parents referred to my teachers (to me, that is) as Mr. and Mrs. I have no idea what they called them in parent-teacher conferences or similar. Again, I wonder about generational differences. Perhaps the teachers back then were also more formal. It would be very interesting to go back to our old elementary school and ask our old teachers – some of whom are still teaching (Mr. F and Mrs. G, specifically) and get their perspective on the changes they’ve seen over time.

    Anne – Thanks for this story. I’m glad to know that some people are taking the plunge on Mr. and Mrs and not being met with resistance. For some reason this makes me a little more willing to blaze the trail if necessary.

  9. Gale Says:

    Jack – How do you introduce yourself? Also, do you think regional differences are at play here?

  10. Laura H. Says:

    We follow what the schools do. Preschools use Miss First Name because kids can’t remember or pronounce last names. My son can barely pronounce all the first names. Once in elementary school we started referring to our daughter’s friends’ parents as Mr. and Mrs. Last Name. I figure the schools know what they are doing. When I talk about my daughter’s teacher to my daughter I use Mrs. Last Name but when talking to my daughter’s teacher in email or at conference time I say her first name.
    We have about 3-4 couples who will always just be called by their first names – exceptions to the Mr. and Mrs. Last Name rule.

  11. Jennifer Says:


    I’ve noticed in my neighborhood that all the kids call me Miss Jennifer. They refer to their parent’s friends and neighbors as Miss or Mr and their first name. If it is someone much older and not a peer of the parent, then it is Mr. or Mrs. Last Name. It’s cute and I appreciate it and I’m glad that I am not considered old enough to be Mrs. Harrison, because that just sounds weird. My husband has not been so fortunate, because he is known only as Miss Jennifer’s Husband. Even when they say hello. Funny.

  12. Gale Says:

    Laura H – Thank you, as always, for sharing your choices. I always appreciate hearing your perspective since I know you are a conscientious parent and you are a few years ahead of me in this game.

    Jennifer – The “Miss Jennifer’s Husband” thing made me laugh! :) I’m hearing of lots of people using the Miss/Mr First Name convention, which gets me thinking that it may be the way to go, at least while IEP is young. Also, I think it paves the way for the conversion to last names when the kids are old enough.

  13. Bridget Says:

    I wonder if as kids get older and are meeting parents through their friends the parents are introduced as, “This is my mom”, therefore kid does not actually know parent name, but does know friend’s last name so calls the mom Mrs. X and the tradition lives on naturally?

    I always called parents by the last names, but am interested to see how this plays out as my son ages. I think he will naturally fall into calling parents by last names as he starts meeting the parents of friends of his choosing and not just meeting my friends and their children. In the meantime, we seem to be going with Mr. John or Miss Jennifer. This has gotten slightly confusing on a couple friends who are doctors/dentists and I wasn’t sure if we should then slip into Dr. John or Dr. Jennifer?

    He does go to school, but it’s hard to gage what he calls the other parents because if I’m truthful I have a hard time pronouncing many of his classmates last names. We seem to have resorted to, “say thank you to Aaru’s mommy” or “say hello to Anhoki’s dad”. A pitfall of an ethnically diverse student body, I suppose.

  14. Gale Says:

    Bridget – Wow – another proponent of the Mr. and Miss First Name convention! Also, I’d not thought about the way that kids meet adults (ie – from their parents versus from their friends) as being a determinant of how they address them. But I follow your logic. As for the challenging names in a diverse classroom? I think it’s a good problem to have. Your son will learn a lot about other cultures from his classmates, not to mention learning to how to handle tough names.

  15. Laura H. Says:

    Bridget reminded me that I am known as “Hayden’s mommy” at preschool – which is neither first nor last name. The kids all recognize each others’ parents since they see each other being dropped off or picked up, but don’t have any reason to necessarily hear our first names, or remember their friends’ last names to try that approach. But when we’ve had playdates with some of those kids, the parents will usually call me Miss Laura in front of their children, and vice versa.

    Totally laughed about Ms. Jennifer’s Husband too – he needs to make an effort to become Mr. First Name with those neighborhood kids!

    Some of the cutest nicknames have come from the Miss/Mr. First Name convention. Miss Yvonne is commonly known by all the preschool kids as Miss BonBon and Miss Alicia is commonly known as Miss Sheshaw (even by the kids who can now pronounce these names). Even the adults will say Miss BonBon if talking to Miss Yvonne in front of their children. It’s very cute.

  16. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Such an interesting post and I really think there are no right answers here. I have never been big on the formality of Mr. and Mrs. and that wasn’t how I was raised. As long as my kiddos sprout into polite little beings, I will encourage/allow them to call friends’ parents by their first names (or whatever the parents prefer).

  17. Cathy Says:

    For my close friends, my kids are using first names. However, in less comfortable situations they seem to naturally turn to Mr. and Mrs. I never thought about it that much because they seem to get it right and take a more respectful route than not, but it seems that Bridget might be on to something. Two of my boys are at the age where they often meet the parents/adults before I do (is that bad?) so they turn to the Mr. and Mrs. by default. I’m okay with that and would prefer they take a more formal approach until told they can do otherwise.

  18. Rebecca Says:

    Hi Gale – loyal reader and lurker but rare commenter! Thank you so much for posting on this topic. I’ve actually been thinking of posting on it myself. I don’t have any solutions but like you mentioned, as did other commenters, the naming convention might evolve as your child makes his/her way through school. I too have a 2 yr old and what interesting about where we live now (Tanzania) is that according to local custom, once you become a mom, you cease to be the person you were prior to having kids. So I used to be Rebecca, but now I am Mama Amelia and that’s what most people – locals – refer to me as. It’s been a useful moniker also for my daughter and her friends and feels equally respectful and warm and casual (what I want kids to feel towards me). I’m not diligent about referring to my friends who have kids as Mama X, and usually just use their first name which my daughter has picked up. I personally don’t want to be referred to as Mrs. but I’m happy to respect any parent that does insist on it for our kids. I don’t know if I’ll continue the Mama Amelia name as she gets holder and esp once we move back to the US but for this stage in life, it works!

  19. Gale Says:

    Rebecca – Thank you so much for offering your international perspective here. It’s always so eye opening to hear about the customs of other cultures. I do like the Mama X convention and I imagine it saves a lot of headaches for people who are stumbling through this issue. Am I interpreting the custom correctly to assume that Amelia is your daughter’s name? So, I would be Mama IEP? And then how does this work if you have multiple kids? Does the X just become whichever kid the other person knows? So, if you had another daughter named Mary would her friends call you Mama Mary and Amelia’s friends would call you Mama Amelia? So many questions!! Thanks again for commenting and I’m always happy to “meet” another reader.

  20. Jan Says:

    I loved your musing about…am I swimming upstream? Being a parent involves a lot of that, and this is only one of a zilion topics that might require it. It crescendoes to considering this one: “But all my friends have their own cars!”

  21. Gale Says:

    Jan – You’re right. I have years of peer pressure to deal with. I know I will have to pick my battles and give in from time to time. I just hope I pick the right battles.

  22. Rebecca Says:

    Gale, I have never been entirely straight on that issue myself. I think that usually you are Mama Your First Born Child. However, like you say you’re Mama Whoever depending on who is addressing you and which kid they know best. Wow, feels like this question belongs on an SAT test or something.

  23. Leigh Says:

    Like Rebecca – loyal reader but rare commenter. I will put a stake in the sand on this one Gale: I’m all for the Mr./Mrs./Miss convention. I think some of it is clearly about how you were raised – as is always the case with parenting right! So, I’m a firm believer in the more formal naming convention. To this day…I still call the parents of my best friend Mr./Mrs. And it isn’t weird or oddly formal – it’s rather comfortable – in fact, I’ve shortened their last name too so it is a familiar and dear sort of address between us now. No offense to anyone else’s perspective but as my mother always said kids aren’t born with manners, they are taught (with LOTS of repetition!) So, my point of view is that the Mr./Mrs./Miss naming convention is an aspect of instilling good manners and politeness (which I am NOT saying if you don’t use that that you are ill-mannered). I also think that the superior/subordinate “distance” created by this form of address between child/adult is an ok thing for our youth today – I think they are so encouraged to be expressive that they cross the line of respect and sometimes assume they are on the same level of adults when they aren’t. That said…2 is a VERY young age for a kid to have to say Mrs. _(insert my long and hard to pronounce last name)___ so the Mr./Mrs./Miss First Name is a good bridge. I know my littlest niece (3 yrs) uses that for her daycare teacher but my oldest niece (6 yrs) has moved into using Mr./Mrs./Miss Last Name since she is now capable of articulating/remembering.

  24. Gale Says:

    Thanks, Leigh. I’ve gotten such great feedback on this topic and I think that the Mr/Miss First Name for toddlers is user-friendly enough, and paves the way for the Mr./Mrs Last Name as the child gets older. We haven’t come to a final decision, but this is the direction I’m leaning. Thanks for chiming in!