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July 12, 2012
The Real Issue
How Should Children Address Adults?
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


This is what has really been plaguing me. I do not know how my children should address adults.

I originally planned to teach my children to use Brother and Sister at church and whatever the teacher expects at school (Miss First Name or Mrs. Last Name).  I also decided teach my children to use Mr. and Mrs. in the community. 

Well, the whole thing has been a huge disaster. There are too many rules to learn! For example:

At my son's school, the teachers go by Mr. or Mrs. Last Name. I like this. The kids do fine with it. But I have found it impossible to convince my kids to address any adults outside school as Mr. or Mrs. Last Name. Also, it can be challenging to figure out last names. Many children's parents are not married to each other or, even if they are, the wife does not use her husband's last name.

At my daughter's school, the children are expected to use their teacher's first names. I personally don't like this practice. But the children are taught to engage adults in polite conversation. Perhaps I would rather be "Mrs. Reynolds" to her friends. But it's charming when they say, "It's nice to see you today, Alisha." Maybe I should worry less about what my kids call adults and more about how they speak to them.

At church the children are taught to address adults as Brother and Sister.  But adults generally do not address other adults using these titles.  So children hear a lot of first names.  Also, our church circle often overlaps with other social circles. It does not seem appropriate to use Brother and Sister outside a church setting. We're already cliquish enough as Mormons.

When we lived in Texas, everyone used Miss First Name except at school (Mrs. Last Name) and church (Sister Last Name). I was not used to this, but at least it was consistent. It is not common here in the north, however, and since we move frequently, I hesitate to make it our family rule. 

My children are not skilled verbally, and they struggle with articulation and word recall. They can barely remember and say their own names! No wonder they've resorted to saying "Liam's Mom" instead of "Sister Nielsen" at church but "Mrs. Nielsen" when you see her at school and don't forget that your mom calls her "Shannon."

My kids aren't the only guilty ones. My name is David's Mom because parents don't give their children specific instructions on how to address me. And I don't know how to introduce myself. Sister Reynolds? Miss Alisha?

My kids are so confused that they've regressed into addressing adults like this: "Hi, Bailey's Mom, can Bailey come over to play?" or "Brooke's Mom, can I have another cookie?"

I feel like society has broken down! And I feel like I'm making this way too complicated. Help!


You are indeed making this very complicated. This is one of the happy areas of childrearing where there is a right answer. If you follow the rule, you can enjoy the peace and satisfaction of doing the right thing and not worrying about the issue any more.

Children should address adults by a title and a name. By "children" I mean everyone who has not yet joined Relief Society or Elders Quorum. After that milestone, a young adult may address an older adult by his first name when invited to do so. This is the rule. If you want to quibble with it, write to Miss Manners. But be forewarned that no one has ever quibbled with Miss Manners and won.

Addressing an adult by the correct title is an important way of showing respect, and you ignore it at your peril. Using titles does not indicate a lack of closeness or affection. In fact, a close relationship between a child and adult is more likely to develop when this rule is followed because the child is showing the appropriate respect.

For every adult who doesn't mind being called by his first name, there are fifty who do mind. These fifty will also wonder what other rules of behavior the child does not know. Conversely, a child who addresses adults correctly can enjoy the assumption that he knows his manners. And people like to associate with children who have nice manners.

You did not ask this, but I have no patience with adults who object to being called by a title. Titles are an important acknowledgement of what should be true -- that adults are grown up and therefore different from children. Being called Sister So-And-So will not take away your individuality, ruin your fun-loving nature, make you unapproachable, or turn you into your mother-in-law. The only distance it puts between you and children is the distance that should already be there because you are an adult and not a peer.

But you already know all this. By your own admission, you know the rule, you want your children to follow the rule, and you want other children to follow the rule when they address you. You also report success in following the rule at school and church.

But you seem uncomfortable because other people do not follow the rule. This is no reason to abandon ship! Instead, it is an excellent opportunity to teach your children a correct rule (how to address adults) and an important principle: that we follow rules even if others don't. Also, that we don't criticize people who do not follow the rules as we do; but we do not worry about being criticized for acting correctly.

You also seem worried about your children's ability to say and remember the right names. But if your son can remember "Bailey's Mom," he can surely remember "Mrs. Ottesen" with a little practice and reinforcement.

Start with a Family Home Evening lesson on how to address adults at church and another on how to address adults in the community. Explain to your children that it is important and respectful for them to call adults Brother and Sister or Mr. and Mrs. Then practice, using the names of people they frequently see.

For example: "David, let's pretend I'm Victor's mom. 'My' name is Sister Swindlehurst. How should you greet me?" And David will say, "Hello, Sister Swindlehurst." Then have him ask you for a cookie or where the bathroom is or whatever else you can think of, all while using the right title and name. If you think this will baffle your child, act out the script with your husband first and then have your child try it.

Since you daughter is expected to call adults by their first names at school, tell her that she is right for following the school rule. But also tell her that when she is not at school, she should use Brother/Mr. or Sister/Mrs. Have her practice the gracious conversation she has learned at school with the appropriate titles and names she must use everywhere else.

Continue to reinforce your instruction in a natural way as you go about your day. Constant reinforcement, over months and years, is how you will really teach your children what to call adults.

When you refer to other adults in a conversation with your children, use the titles and names you want the child to use. Don't talk about "Joan" or "Janiah's Mom." Talk about "Sister Orchard."

As you travel somewhere, anticipate who will be there and demonstrate to your children how to address them. For example, "We will probably see Mrs. Brown at the picnic. When we see her, you should say, 'Hello, Mrs. Brown.' David, what will you say when you see Mrs. Brown?" And David will say, or you can prompt him to say, "Hello, Mrs. Brown," and you will praise him.

After you greet someone, smile down at your daughter and say, "Mary, can you say 'hello' to Mr. Little?" Whether Mary complies or buries her face in your skirt, she will know how to address Mr. Little.

When you hear your child address an adult by his first name or as "Friend's Mom," promptly and kindly correct him. If David runs up to Mrs. Brown and says, "Hey, Holden's Mom, can we go outside?" catch his eye and kindly and meaningfully say, "Mrs. Brown, can we go outside?" Then have him repeat it. Then look proud and give him a loving pat. For an older child, you can whisper your correction into his ear and then have him address the other adult again.

If you drill this enough when the children are young, they will know the rules by the time they are old enough to be embarrassed by your constant instruction and correction.

When you don't know a person's last name, you can do a couple of things. Where acceptable, as in the South, using Miss First Name is fine. If you are at church or in a last-name part of the country you can introduce your child and say, "This is my daughter Mary. Mary, this is Mrs. ..." and, looking a little embarrassed, just ask the person her last name. If you don't know if a woman is married, you can use Ms.

People are usually happy to tell you what name and title they use. You can prevent any such awkwardness for others by always introducing yourself to an adult with your first and last name. You can introduce yourself to a child as Mrs. or Sister Last Name.

For young children, I wouldn't worry about switching between Sister and Mrs. or Brother and Mr. for church and community interactions. It is your behavior that will telegraph cliquishness, not the way your children address adults. If you feel the switch is necessary with older children, you can explain it to them. But I think any adult prefers being "Sister Roper" to "Hey Julie's Mom" no matter the setting.

Finally, it is all right for you to prefer children to address you by Mrs. or Sister. There is even something you can do about it! The next time you are supervising someone's child and that child calls you "David's Mom," smile and say kindly, "My name is Sister Reynolds." The trick is to act as if you believe the child wishes he knew your name and you are helping him. You'll have to repeat yourself a few times, but the child will learn.

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