When your kid’s friends come over, are you a Mrs, a Ms, or a first name only kind of mom? Some people don’t care…and some people care a lot. When I relocated from a relaxed city neighborhood to a small New England town, I came face to face with tightly held values concerning traditionalism and formality. Among my struggles there was the tendency for neighborhood children to call me  “Mrs. Noonan.” I had been married for 18 years and, before moving there, I don’t know that I had ever been called “Mrs. Noonan.”

First and foremost, my name is not Noonan. That is my husband’s name and, lovely as it is, I was born into the Nilsen family and a Nilsen I proudly remain, alongside an unbreakable partnership with the Noonan family. As far as the “Mrs.” is concerned, it’s just never come up. In almost 20 years of modern matrimony, no one has made the assumption that I’m a Mrs. kind of gal. I’ve never identified myself as a Mrs. and in the event that a title is really, truly required,  I guess I’ll choose “Ms.” —because my marital status is generally not a required piece of information. Since we no longer live in an age where my worth is based on my ability to marry well, it makes me feel better to be ambiguous.

The difficulty for me in that traditional community was convincing children that it was okay to call me Kristin. They simply wouldn’t do it. As if they’d been drilled within an inch of their lives and threatened by well-meaning parents. I even had parents simply insist that their children call me Mrs. Noonan because that was what they, as a family, preferred; it was their firmly held method of teaching children to show respect.

And herein lies the problem. Parents who insist that their children call someone by a name that they don’t wish to be called in order to show respect are, ironically, showing a great deal of disrespect.

For someone to insist that their child address me by a name that not only makes me squirm but is also inaccurate says that my wishes, and my actual name, are of no value. Is this not the definition of disrespect? And for that person to do so because of their firmly held values, I must point out that it’s really not about them, is it? It’s my name, after all. Not theirs.

I am teaching my son that we show respect by addressing people by the name they wish to be called. If someone wishes to be called  “Mrs. So and So,”  it’s important to me that my son address her in such a way to show her the utmost respect. I would never say to Mrs. So and So  “We prefer to call you by your first name in order to do away with the notion that women are mere property. And it’s important to us to foster familiarity amongst our neighbors…”…as if my values override hers. Her name is her business, not mine.  She chose it for a reason and I need  to respect that. This is one of the reasons certain ethnic terms have been stricken from our lexicon;  my grandmother may not understand why we can’t use certain words anymore and, sometimes, the answer lies not in the word’s meaning but in the fact that the people we are referring to have chosen a preferable term.  A term that makes them feel more comfortable.  And we show them respect by using that new term (even if my grandmother can’t figure out why).

One’s tight adherence to formality must be examined for its intention. Is it really to show respect? If so, consider this:

We garner respect from children not by our titles, which are superficial at best, but by our demeanor and our expectations of them.   And I can assure you that after two decades of being “Kristin” to hundreds of neighborhood, school and library children, I’ve never had a single child treat me as anything resembling a peer. I’ve never had a single child question or challenge my authority.

Except, of course, for the children who continue to call me Mrs. Noonan after numerous rounds of  “You know that’s not my name, right?” (The irony is killing me.) And don’t make me recount the tales of the Mrs’s  who’ve been walked on and manipulated  by cheeky children in my presence. You’ve seen it, too, haven’t you? In other words, the math doesn’t add up.

Most adults will introduce themselves to children by using the name they wish to be called, the name that makes them feel most comfortable and in control. Take this as your cue. If they don’t offer a name, I always ask. “How do you like the kids to address you?  Do you like Mrs. Johnson? Ms. Johnson? Or Kathy?”

Even if it doesn’t matter to them either way, they will feel quite honored, and respected, that you bothered to ask.

In our modern world, the use of “Mrs.” outside of the school environment has dwindled to a point that we can’t default to its use. We can’t assume that being known first and foremost as your husband’s wife is a welcome thing. For some, it is lovely. For others,  it is offensive. It’s a very personal thing.

And families take so many forms today that we also can’t assume that all the inhabitants of a home share the same surname.   There are single parents  and bonus parents and parents who are remarried and parents who never married and parents who are just exercising their surname options. We need to honor all of their names—not just that of the proverbial man of the house.

Firmly held values are an admirable thing where our children are concerned. Unexamined values are not. Just make sure your values are speaking the truth you intend them to speak and that your children carry those values out into the world with clear understanding and compassion.

That’s how we raise respectful children.

Calligraphy envelope by Bernard Maisner


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Comments (6)


  1. Posted by: Pooja

    I’m Asian American and we used Aunty and Uncle to address all our friends’ parents. Now, I live in Asia and my daughter addresses perfect strangers as Aunty and Uncle as well. Just another — ‘ethnic’ — POV…

  2. Posted by: Marianne

    I grew up addressing all adults as Mr. or Mrs. Last Name. While living for 10 years in Atlanta I learned that there children generally refer to adults as Mr. or Miss (marital status not withstanding) First Name. I prefer not to be called Mrs. Last Name. I prefer Miss Marianne but I let the kids decide unless their parents prefer “Mrs.”, which is rare. One calls me Mrs. Marianne which I find charming. Maybe you could strike the middle road by asking the children and their parents to call you Ms.Nilsen?

  3. Posted by: Sadie

    Here, here! I did not take my husband’s name, and I have continued to receive cards addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Hisname, and to be told that is the “correct way,” and the way I should address my own Christmas cards! I don’t think the “correct way” means calling someone a name that isn’t theirs and that they don’t like to be called. What kind of correctness is that?

  4. In my sister’s neighborhood the kids address adults by Mrs/Ms/Miss/Mr Last Name; it seems to be the local convention & I’m not there that much, so whatever. But when I was asked which salutation I wanted, my answer (Dr., because that is my hard-earned title; usually to kids I’m Dr. Frances, Auntie Frances, or just Frances), my sister told me that was “a bit much” & had the children call me Ms. Vettergreen. Not sure who that is, but it’s not me. So then why did she bother to ask?

    Fortunately in my beautifully diverse neighborhood most of us are on a first name basis, kids too, and those who want something else will introduce themselves that way. Because yes, it is disrespectful to insist on a “politeness” which is awkward to the recipient.

  5. Posted by: Nina

    In our neighborhood all the kids seem to call the parents by the name of the child plus mom or dad. I like being known as “Rose’s Mom,” it’s simple, clear and does away with the stuffy decorum and any possible confusion caused by Ms., Mrs., Mr. etc.

  6. Good perspective & a good reminder. We’ve had the same issues and decided to split it down the middle. Our kids call people either “Mr.”, “Ms.” or “Dr.” and then their first name. No “Mrs.” involved and we skip last names all together. In a city where most adults go by their first names, it was a way to not deal with last names and also teach some respect and a small sense of formality to our kids. It seems to work pretty well. I do like your idea of asking each person as well.

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