Somehow, I've managed to raise a polite, well-mannered 7-year-old who sends little old ladies into paroxysms of delight with his charming manners. His 19-month-old brother is still a little savage, however. But there's one grey area that I've grappled with, and that's how he should address grownups. For authority figures, teachers, strangers and older people, it's easy. But when it comes to friends and acquaintances and other parents, I find myself floundering.
Among my crowd of friends and acquaintances, it's not even a question how I want to be addressed by their children. I'm on a first-name basis with all of my sons' friends, and although I like to flatter myself as a hipster mom, I'll admit that I have mixed feelings about hearing "Yo Minsun!" yelled across a playground by a snot-nosed little twerp. Yet the alternatives aren't any better. I didn't change my maiden name when I got married, so my son and I have different last names. This causes no end of confusion to our own family and friends (who still address correspondence to Mr and Mrs after 11 years of marriage).
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I recoil whenever anybody calls me Mrs Tenenbaum because that's simply not my name. Technically, I'd be Ms Park (not Mrs Park), but that just sounds so stuffy and schoolmarmish. Shortening it to something like Ms P is simply not an option, for reasons obvious to those with a juvenile sense of humor.
The southern tradition of inserting a Miss or Mrs in front of my first name like Miss Minsun, is too antebellum for my tastes -- not to mention that it's also how the Latina housekeepers in Los Angeles refer to their suburban boss ladies. Besides, anybody who inserts a title in front of their first name had better be on daytime TV or radio. Only Judge Judy or Dr Phil can get away with using a title of address with their first name and not risk being mistaken for someone's pet. So by default, it's either Minsun or "Jonah's Mommy" for anybody who is stumped by my name.
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Although I happen to prefer being addressed by my first name over the other options, I have my nagging doubts that everyone else has the same preference. Etiquette suggests introducing someone by their title and leaving it up to them to state their preference. But the mere act of introducing my close friends to my son, using Mr or Ms or Mrs, lacked intimacy and seemed inappropriately formal. Yet it also seems weird that a first-grader should be on an equal footing with a grownup. I wonder how many grownups out there are actually uncomfortable with being on a first name basis with a grade-schooler, yet suffer in silence for fear of seeming unfriendly or uptight.
After all, this is L.A. – where nobody is over 35 years old because they're pickled in Botox and Restylane and everyone wears flip flops to work and $250 jeans to the opera. This desperate need to be youthful and casual at all times has translated to relaxed social etiquette. Only teachers, instructors, coaches, doctors, clergy, rabbis and other authority figures have titles.
Eventually, I hope my sons can mingle among polite company and not raise speculation that they may have been raised by wolves instead of two clueless homosapiens. So I consulted Lisa Gaché, etiquette expert extraordinaire and co-founder of Beverly Hills Manners, which offers protocol and etiquette training programs for children and adults. She sympathized with me about the awkwardness for everyone involved.
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"I understand completely your quandary regarding the proper way for children to address adults as there are many circumstances in which one way or another may seem more appropriate. You are correct in that there is a proper way for children to address adults or parents and that is to use their Titles of Address. These titles are used to show respect to our elders. Some examples of titles include Mr, Mrs, Ms or Doctor, Uncle, Mayor, etc. The etiquette rules suggests that children should address adults using their title until they are given permission by that adult to do otherwise."
What do you prefer?
So how is a grownup, who wants to observe these titles of address, supposed to state this preference without offending anyone?
Ms Gaché responded, "I think it is perfectly acceptable for a parent to politely and warmly suggest to a child (or to another parent) that they prefer to be addressed by their title and last name. The key is to do this in a respectful, yet warm manner so as not to offend anyone involved. However, this can present a bit of a sticky situation when you are dealing with a parent who may find this to be a bit too formal. In some cases, a child who addresses an adult using their title and last name may be perceived as being precocious or acting too old for their age. In other cases, a child who is forced to address an adult by their title and last name may perceive that adult to be cold, distancing and off-putting."
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Her response confirmed just how tough a balancing act it can be for parents who want to teach their children to use proper manners without seeming precocious and distant.
Although I want to teach my son to question authority when necessary, I also want him to respect it. I also want to him to be courteous, yet not at the expense of intimacy. The titles of address may be polite and proper, but they can also function as social walls that are difficult to scale. Walls don't invite confidences, secrets, inside jokes or hugs -- something I want my good friends to experience with my children and what I want to share with theirs.
Exceptions to the rules
That's why I really like Ms Gaché's suggestion on how to get around this. "For parents who wish to follow proper etiquette when introducing close friends. I would suggest introducing their close friends to the child using their titles and last names and then add that because they are close friends, it is all right for the child to address them by their first name. In this regard, they are acknowledging the rules of etiquette and allowing permission to change them."
As far as I'm concerned, getting a little bit of respect is about the only thing good about growing older. But I also want to be accessible and friendly to my children's friends and not be perceived as some stodgy grownup they can't talk to or confide in. So I think I'll have to resign myself to losing one of the few benefits of getting old -- besides my dwindling social security. Just don't take away my early-bird specials, or someone will get hurt.
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