On Titles and Respect

Sierra’s recent post, “Oh, ‘Brother,’” made me think about just what I was taught to call adults growing up. Sierra writes that in her church she was encouraged to call other church members “Brother This” or “Sister That.” We, in contrast, did not do that. I don’t think my parents would have seen that as respectful, actually.

My parents required us to always address adults with the titles “Mr.” or Mrs.” followed by a last name. If it was a fairly young adult, we might be allowed to use the titles “Mr.” or “Miss” followed by a first name. “Miss Sarah,” for instance. This usage actually included the teenage babysitters we had when we were young. Anyway, using these titles was a requirement; to not use them was considered disrespect.

This created some problems. In middle school I was briefly involved in our church’s youth group – a short lived experiment – and the youth minister insisted on being called by his first name. I was, however, specifically forbidden from calling adults by their first names. When I needed to ask him something I therefore used the title “Mr.” The result was that he completely ignored me as he apparently did anyone who refused to call him by his first name.

Similarly, one of my younger aunts was distinctly uncomfortable with us using the title “Aunt.” She just wanted to be called by her first name, at least by us older children, and she requested as much. We were not allowed to comply. We went right on calling her “Aunt Such-and-Such” regardless.

I think part of the reason these sort of titles were considered so important was that they created a strong boundary between “adults” and “children.” It segregated the two into two distinct groups, with children in need of training and adults deserving of respect and obedience. It made sure that the lines between children and adults could not be forgotten.

And I think that in some way adults like that youth minister or my aunt actually want to blur that line in some way by rejecting the use of such titles. The youth minister wanted to be approachable and available to the young people he ministered to, wanted to be seen as a friend and confidant rather than a distant or authoritative adult. My aunt wanted a relationship with her nieces and nephews that was built on companionship rather than authority or hierarchy.

I think the divide between adults and children is often too distinct and artificial, especially as children approach adulthood. After all, dividing the world strictly into “children” and “adults” ignores the fact that there is a great deal of difference between a two-year-old and a sixteen-year-old, and a great deal of difference between a twenty-tw0-year-old and a fifty-year-old.

One area where I try to break down that strict divide is in my own mothering. I see myself as my daughter’s guide, not her commander. I want a relationship with my daughter based on love and trust, not authority or hierarchy. And, as my daughter grows older, I plan to give her more and more freedom, autonomy, and say in her life. I don’t want her to see the world in terms of “us” verses “them,” but rather in terms of people of all sorts of different shapes, sizes, ages, talents, and abilities.

And yet I do ask Sally to call me “mommy.” Sometimes she calls me by my given name, because she knows it, and I don’t make a big deal out of it when she does. What I encourage her to call me, though, is “mommy.” Why? Because, I tell her, anybody can call me “Libby” but only she can call me “mommy.”

What do I have Sally call other adults? Well, in many ways it depends on what those other adults want or are comfortable with. I don’t have a problem with her calling our friends by their first names, but if they prefer otherwise, I let her know what they want to be called. And Sally is still young, so this is something I haven’t completely worked out yet. I do know, however, that I definitely won’t be requiring her to use “Mr.” or Mrs.” with every adult she comes in contact with.

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