Address to Impress: How children should address adults

by epi on August 6, 2013

Q: Should my 9 year old son address our neighbors by their first name or Mr. and Mrs.? If the answer is the latter, at what age can a child address an adult by their first name?

A: A child never addresses an adult by his or her first name unless the adult requests it. This continues right into the child’s twenties when it is most respectful to use titles. Naturally if there are adults that insist that small children call them by their first names it is up to you whether you agree to this, but it is not an issue. The issue only occurs when the child is encouraged to use first names for adults without those adults’ permission. In fact, it is fine for an adult when addressed this way to say, “You may call me Mr. Jones, Billy, not George.”

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

MM Thomas August 6, 2013 at 9:05 am

I’m sorry, but it really bothers me when adults introduce their children to me and use my first name. When my dd was little, I dissuaded my friends from letting her call them by their first name. “Please bear with us, ” I would say, “It’s a matter of perception and respect.”

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Rachel August 6, 2013 at 9:49 am

I’m sorry, but it really bothers me when parents decide that my wishes aren’t important. I don’t want to be called Ms Lastname, especially when people use my former, married last name. I want to be called by my first name. I tell children that, and I get really annoyed when parents decide that I should be called something I don’t like due to how they want their children to address people.

I was raised to call people Mr/Mrs/Ms Lastname until/unless I was told to call them something else, and that’s what my kids do. It’s polite to address someone with the name they prefer.

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Nonnie Mowse August 7, 2013 at 8:59 am

Wow…scary room. If I were a first-time reader here, I would understand why my non-etiquette trained in-laws perceive etiquette as a weapon to be used against the country poor. Very upsetting, as I thought this site was about calm discussion.

So please help me understand, why is there so much bristle? If someone prefers to be addressed by their first name by folks of any age, that is their right. What is not their right is to decide what rules and practices a parent should decide for their child. A parent teaches their child that all FIRST contact be formal, there is nothing wrong with that. Then the addressee gently informs their preference. And life goes on. Though very young children will no doubt be confused, and not able to understand why there must be a difference, probably best to keep them with one rule until they are older.

And I am in the same group as another reader here, I am in my late 50s and still use titles until otherwise informed. I am in a situation right now where I must inform my sil again that her children must address thank you note envelopes to adults with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, not Tom and Jane Smith.

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Rachel August 7, 2013 at 10:48 am

My issue is some parents, such as the first commenter, tell me that their children aren’t allowed to call me by the name I prefer. Which is rude. Parents have the right to their rules for their children, of course, but if I want to be called by my first name, they shouldn’t overrule that. I was raised to call people by Mr/Mrs/Ms Lastname until/unless told otherwise, and that’s what I do now in my 40s. It was never confusing for me or for my children when they were young. It’s no more confusing than knowing that your name is Nonnie and mine is Rachel – different people use different names.

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Jazzgirl205 August 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm

I come from a latin background in which adults are not only refered to by their last names but even the pronouns are more formal forms of address. Use of title and last name clearly illustrate for a child, especially a young one, that an adult is to be respected and that they carry more authority than the child’s little friends. No matter how precocious a child is, an adult holds more wisdom and experience. A proper title is an outward symbol that helps the child recognize that fact.

The first commentor was not being rude. She was trying to give her child that lesson.

Ruth Peltier August 7, 2013 at 3:09 am

I call people Mr or Mrs last name till I am told do use their first name . And I am 71 years old :)

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Gil August 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm

I always called my neighbors “Mrs”, “Mr” from the time I was old enough to talk until now..(almost 50) I would never even call them by their first even if invited to do so. It’s more of respecting my elders AND being raised in the deep South.

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becky August 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm

a more common practice in the South (probably fading now), is to address familiar elders as Miss Jane or Mr./Dr. Bob. Of course starting with Mrs. Smith, then with permission, using the more familiar Miss Jane. It allows even children at an appropriate time to use a first name, but still including the ‘respect’ piece for elders. (and not the gratuitous aunt/uncle honorarium) Admittedly, as an adult going on 50, I still refer to the adults of my youth as Miss/Mr/Dr FirstName….even now as we are serving on the same charity boards as contemporaries.

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Brydon March 27, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I was raised this way as well… and even though I’m no longer in the south, I try to encourage this habit. It has the benefit of freeing adults (who are often introduced to each other by their first names) from juggling two sets of names when talking to students (and vice versa). And it communicates both respect and affection at once. Plus I find it more charming.

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Kirsten December 28, 2013 at 1:13 am

I really think that the answer to this question really depends upon the culture with which you are involved. Growing up, we lived in an area of Canada where it was common practice to refer to all people by their first name, from the time you could speak–to do otherwise would have been considered highly unusual and “stuffy.” However, upon moving to the United States as a teenager, my (now closest) girlfriend’s mother was horrified when I asked what her first name was upon meeting her–it was none of my darn business. We are also very close friends with a very proper South African family; it is their norm to refer to adults as “Aunt” or “Uncle,” as signs of respect before addressing the individual. Despite my casual upbringing, I refer to those in a business setting or whom I am meeting for the first time as Mr or Ms. However, I refer to family, including MIL and FIL by their first names.

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