06/05/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

'I'm Good' With Being Called 'Ma'am'

We recently visited a family in central Florida that has four children. Each child, from the 8-year-old to the 14-year-old, addressed me as "Ma'am." Every time I heard it, it made me smile -- at first because it's such a charming Southern tradition and then, once my ear became attuned to it, because I knew I was in the company of kids taught to respect adults.

I live in Los Angeles, a city where there isn't much Ma'am-ing going on. What I hear is "I'm good" instead of "No thank you" when I offer someone an extra helping of food, and "no problem" when I thank someone for something.

Frankly, I'd take Ma'am any day. In fact, I'd like to start a movement to bring Ma'am to every city in America, starting with my own. While I admit that being called Ma'am made me feel a tad older than I normally walk around feeling, the truth is, I am older than the children who were addressing me. And by using this honorarium, I felt the respect that age should bring. Yeah, liberal old me liked it; go figure.

I'm resisting typing the words that "kids today don't respect their elders." It sounds so uncool and I pride myself on being a cool mom. But I am bothered by how many of the kids I encounter have an attitude of entitlement. They treat the adults in their lives as either servants or a nuisance or merely a means to the end of acquiring the stuff they want. I recall many a soccer game where as snack mom, I had bags of chips and cookies grabbed from my grasp without a single "thank you" and birthday parties for my kids where the young guests left whining loudly because they didn't get the particular Power Ranger they wanted as a party favor.

Their parents? They just kind of shrugged with a helpless "What can we do? You know how kids are." To start, you can teach them some manners. And as for how kids are, well, they aren't that way unless you let them be.

There are just two things that separate us from the animals: opposible thumbs and our manners. Manners are what make us civilized. They dovetail with the values we all want our children to embrace: kindness, helpfulness, sensitivity to the presence and feelings of others. And yet many of us would rather tiptoe around the idea of correcting our kids for fear that their feelings might bruise. We try too hard to befriend them when what they need are role models to look up to and emulate -- and who aren't afraid to set boundaries or teach them things like respecting their elders.

Adults and children have different roles, and they aren't meant to function as equals. I've never been all that keen on schools where students call their teachers by their first names. While learning may be a two-way street, most of the traffic -- in my view -- should be passed from the top down: Teachers teach, students learn.

I've also never fully grasped why some parents encourage their kids to address them by their given names instead of Mom and Dad. Our family -- with an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old -- isn't a democracy; my husband and I call the shots. I prefer to think of us as benevolent dictators where our children's needs are always first and center. But that doesn't translate into getting them every new electronic gadget they want or letting them have sleepovers on school nights.

When one of my kids' friends calls me by my first name, I don't generally make a big deal over it. But going forward, there may be some extra dessert for those who address me as "Ma'am."