The second you become a parent, whether or not you’re ready, you are forced to become a turbo-charged problem solver. My days are like a never-ending loop of MacGyver episodes (MomGyver?), in which I figure out how to change a diaper in a changing-table-less public restroom; how to simultaneously bathe, feed, and clothe four unattentive children; how to rig up a harness to attach My Little Pony figures to a Fisher Price carriage; how to answer questions like whether ghosts are real.
No problem. But here’s one that, after nearly six years of parenting, I still haven’t figured out: The problem of how my children should address non-family adults.
My husband and I grew up on opposite sides of the country, in families with different cultural backgrounds. Yet we agree that, as children, there was never a question as to how one addressed a grown-up. They were all “Mr./Mrs. [LAST NAME],” with the exception of extremely close family friends, who might ask you to call them “Uncle/Auntie [FIRST NAME]” (and even then, I usually felt uncomfortable doing so).
I’m not saying that was the best system, but it was simple. It was clear. There was no awkward bumbling around with names when introductions were made.
Now, it’s all an awkward, bumbling mash-up. The etiquette for how children should address adults seems to vary by geographical location, age group, and even between different social circles.
In Northern California, where we started having children, things were a bit simpler. At that point, most of our friends with children were roughly our age and attended our church. For some reason, the people who’d had children first tended to be Southern transplants, so they set the culture for naming adults: Children addressed grown-ups as “Mr./Miss [FIRST NAME],” as in “Miss Daisy.” Since that’s what most of our friends did, that’s what we did. At times I felt like a character in The Help, but at least it was simple. It was clear. And it seemed to strike a nice balance: informal without being too casual.
Then we moved to Vermont, and everything got confusing. Here, our friends are all over the place: We have friends from the college, friends from town, friends from church, friends who are our age up through friends who are in their 80s. So, when the Gong Girls blazed into town with their “Mr./Miss [FIRST NAME],” it wasn’t always quite right. Clearly that’s too informal for most New Englanders over age 70. But it also seems a little too formal for some of the friends in our own age group, most of whom introduce adults to their children by their first names. (I don’t necessarily have anything against children calling close family friends by their first names — I personally feel ancient and confused when somebody calls me “Mrs. Gong” — but Erick tends to bristle when a two-year-old saunters up to him and says, “Hey Erick!” “I have 20-year-old students who address me more formally than most toddlers,” he’ll grumble). Then there’s a whole group of people in the 40-60 age range, which I consider a panic-inducing grey area.
Add to this another problem: Despite living in a small town, we know a lot of people who share the same names. For instance, there are about ten Deborahs in our life. So we call some by their last names, and some by their first names with qualifying details — “Miss Deb with the horses,” for instance.
I know you’re probably thinking: Relax, Faith! This doesn’t have to be a problem. Why don’t you just ASK people what they’d LIKE your children to call them? Ah, but I do. I have no qualms about asking someone, minutes after we’ve met, “What would you like my children to call you?” The problem is, most people are just so NICE! They’ll smile and say, “Oh, whatever! It doesn’t matter to me. Anything’s fine.” And then I’m left fishing around for an appropriate form of address, carefully watching my new acquaintance’s face to see if they’re offended: “Fiona, this is Sue. Miss Sue. Mrs. Bridge.”
That’s why I end up having exchanges like the following with my children:
ME: So, Fiona, did Mrs. Jones teach Sunday School today?
ME: You know, Mrs. Jones. Miss Deborah.
ME: Janie’s mom.
FIONA: Oh. Yeah.
Anyone else having this problem? If so, I say we band together and start a movement to standardize how children should address their elders. I don’t care if it’s first name, last name, or social security number, just as long as it’ll save me this awkward stumbling around for an appropriate title. At the risk of being overly political, maybe we need something like ObamaName (but with a better computer program). Who’s with me?