Should children call adults by their first names?

A teacher reads with a student.
Students typically address teachers by their formal titles, such as miss or mister, but this may be problematic for people who don’t identify with these gendered terms.

Many of us knew — or were — the kids on the block who addressed parents and neighbors with formality: as Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. What did those kids get for their courtesy? If you grew up on my street, looks of horror from peers and derision for being so stuffy and weird. But what could they do? Their parents insisted all adults be addressed with titles.

Those of us reading this have presumably graduated from the playground, and we can show more sympathy to our formal friends than we did as children. We can start by acknowledging that — according to many schools of thought — those polite children were in the right. The Emily Post Institute itself says all children absolutely should address adults by their formal titles [source: Emily Post Institute]. Miss Manners agrees that children are socially bound to use the correct "civilian" title [source: Martin "Miss Manners"].


But here's the thing. As Miss Manners points out, you're not in charge of telling grown-ups the rules of courtesy. If an adult affably asks to be referred to on a first-name basis, you're in no position to override the preference [source: Martin et al]. In other words, don't tell your child to treat grown-ups with respect, and then ask the child to ignore their wishes.

Also, these rules are arbitrary. It's not like everyone sat down together and agreed to address people in specific ways. And even if we all had, Miss Manners and Ms. Post would have to acknowledge that social expectations shift.

For instance, some parents might find it problematic to ask children to strictly categorize adults (or anyone, for that matter) with gendered terms. As transgender and intersex folks begin self-identifying more in society, relying on children to decide who's a miss and who's a mister might become more fraught. Maybe children simply should be taught to politely inquire how an adult wishes to be addressed.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Emily Post Institute. "Address to Impress: How children should address adults." The Etiquette Daily. Aug. 6, 2013. (April 1, 2015)
  • Martin, Judith. "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children." Simon and Schuster. 1989.
  • Martin, Judith et al. "Raising Kids in a Rude, Rude World." UExpress. May 23, 2010. (April 1, 2015)