The Definitive Guide to What Kids Should Call Adults

The Definitive Guide to What Kids Should Call Adults

Should kids call adults by their first names? Etiquette experts share their take.


By Judy Koutsky

When it comes to kids addressing adults by the correct name, everyone has an opinion. Some adults like to be addressed by their salutation (Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.), followed by their last name (Mrs. Johnson or Dr. Smith) as a sign of respect, while others may think that seems old-fashioned and instead prefer to be addressed by their first name. So what’s correct? Here, experts weigh in and reveal how to teach your kids the proper etiquette.

Are first names OK?
For some adults, having kids call them by their first name signals a comfort level. “When an adult is assuming care and supervision of a child (outside of the school environment), that child should feel comfortable enough to call the adult by his or her first name,” says Elura Nanos, a mom of two in Staten Island, New York. “Children need to know that there is no artificial boundary between them and the adult.” This way, she explains, if a child needs something (like a trip to the bathroom) or is anxious (missing Mom or Dad), that child feels comfortable enough with the adult to simply ask.

Some experts believe the adult should formally signal that they want to go by their first name. “It’s never OK for children to call adults by their first name, unless the adult specifically tells them to,” says Alex J. Packer, PhD, a psychologist and author of How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out.

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What about teachers?
Most experts agree that calling teachers by their salutation, followed by their last name (Dr. Smith or Miss Fliss) is the ideal option for kids -- unless the teacher specifically tells the students otherwise.

Are the rules different for young kids?
Again, there is a difference of opinion. “Some day care centers and preschools use the salutation (Miss/Mrs./Mr.) with the teacher's first name, which I don't think is appropriate because it’s grammatically incorrect,” says parenting coach Monique Prince. “They should either use the formal with the last name (Mrs. Rice) or just use the first name (Jane).”

Additionally, Packer points out that if we tell little kids to call adults by their first name at a young age (because first names may be easier for them to pronounce), it may be more challenging to pinpoint when they should switch to calling them Mr. or Mrs. Johnson. It can also be confusing to the child. “It’s best to go with ‘Mrs. Johnson’ from the start, even if it comes out as “Mzzzzshon” for a while,” says Packer.

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Again, the rule can be different depending on the situation. For example, he notes, if a group of moms who meet regularly with their toddlers all agree that the little ones will call all the moms by their first names, then it’s fine to do so.

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How should kids address non-traditional families?
“We need to recognize that in our modern world of mixed, blended, and stirred families, it can be a bit tricky to be certain of someone’s title or even last name (e.g., a child with two, same-sex parents or a mom who has a different last name from her child),” says Packer. But the easiest way to clear up any confusion is to encourage your child to pay attention to how their friends introduce their parents – “my mom, Mrs. Gomez” or “my two dads, Bob and Joe” and adjust how they address the adult accordingly.

What do you teach your kids to call other adults in their lives?


Judy Koutsky is the former Editorial Director of KIWI magazine, a green parenting publication. She was also Executive Editor of Parenting.com, AOL Parent and BabyTalk.com. Follow her on Twitter @JudyKoutsky.

Image ©iStock.com/Kemter


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