Not long ago, my family and I spent time at a nearby lake with two of my close friends, Jason and Tom, and their families. We three have known each other since elementary school and now have seven kids among us. We were sitting in the yard when Tom's 10 year-old son approached and asked, "Jason, can we take the boat out on the lake?"
"Well, let's start with 'Mr. Matechak,'" said Jason, clearly annoyed that the kid had addressed him by his first name.
And from that moment forward, I had no choice but to take myself seriously as an adult.
My mind flashed immediately to Mrs. Greene, my mom's closest friend when I was growing up. I would never have dreamed of calling her "June." Then I remembered the scene in When Harry Met Sally when Harry tells Sally that one year to a person is like seven years to a dog, and Sally asks, "Is one of us supposed to be a dog in this scenario?"
"Oh my god," I thought. "I am Mrs. Greene in this scenario."
Once the initial shock began to fade, I started to wonder why, in our five-plus years as parents, my husband and I had never once considered that perhaps our sons, then 5 and 2, should be addressing adults as Mr. or Mrs. Last Name, even though that's what we both did as kids. Like Tom's son, my boys always call grown-ups, other than their teachers, by their first names. This was never a conscious decision. It's just that I had never thought of myself as Mrs. Greene.
Until that day at the lake, I hadn't realized that we'd lost the Mr./Mrs. thing or that I even missed it. Now, when I hear my sons address my close friends as "Marissa" or "Marian," it hits my ear like screeching tires. It suddenly sounds disrespectful, bratty. As it turns out, I much prefer the formal approach. It places a nice boundary between kids and adults. It says "we are not equal" and gives us grown ups an air of mystery, as well as respect we deserve for having been knocked around by life a bit. It also suggests a rite of passage: Just as kids will one day be old enough to drive, to vote, to drink booze, one day they will also join the Mr. and Mrs. Club.
So... what happened? How did "Mrs. Greene" become "June," and so quickly, in only one generation? It's not like the kids decided. Is it a result of soaring divorce rates and blended families? A casualty of the warmer, fuzzier brand of parenting many of us Gen Xers practice? Do we just want our kids to think we're cool? Or is it that we prefer the first-name option because the alternative makes us feel geezerish? "I don't want to be called 'Mr. Raymond,'" said my husband. "'Mr. Raymond' is my dad."
Jason's wife, Errin (Mrs. Matechak), admits that holding fast to Mr./Mrs. Last Name puts them in the minority in their Virginia community. And a quick poll of my Facebook friends revealed that while the formal approach is certainly endangered, it isn't yet extinct. Monica in Los Angeles says her kids go all first name with the exception of their teachers. But Monica's sister in Pittsburgh? No first names ever. Karen, who lives in Albuquerque told me, "We are in a decidedly unbuttoned world. My kids even call their teachers Ms. or Mr. First Name." Meanwhile, my husband's 20-year-old cousin was raised in New York City on a first-name basis with adults, but arrived for her freshman year at UT Austin to find that her casual tone did not fly in Texas. Many friends replied that a hybrid -- "Miss Becky," "Mr.Bob." -- which has long been popular in the South, seems to be catching on elsewhere. "But one day I'd like to ensure my son knows the proper introduction for a new person is Mr./Mrs. Last Name," said Lindley in Virginia. "Not sure when/how I will handle that transition."
Where I live, in a suburb north of New York City, most kids take the first-name approach and most parents seem fine with it. So even though I do sometimes pine for a return to the familiar, formal sound of "Mrs. Greene," switching gears now would be difficult and impractical. I'd be swimming against a strong tide and my kids would be confused. Plus, many women in our orbit, including me, did not take their husband's last name. That alone makes the first-name option a whole lot easier than expecting a preschooler to keep track of Greenes and Smiths and Millers, not to mention all the hyphenates.
My favorite solution to this vexing issue came this past summer, courtesy of Aine, a friend's seven-year-old daughter, who approached me at the pool and asked, "Adam's mom, where is Adam?" Being called "Adam's mom" made me laugh. It's cute, succinct, and accurate. I doubt this will enter the vernacular anytime soon, and it won't help when kids are referring to adults like our friends Alan and Larry, who don't have children (but they do have a dog. maybe they'd be "Lucky's Daddies?") Anyway, Aine chose to call me "Adam's mom" because, in her world, that is the role I play. And there's nothing disrespectful or bratty about that.