The kids who pile into Debbie Helfeld's car after school know her as Debbie and that's fine with the Baltimore mother of two. Respect runs deeper than a title like Ms. Helfeld, she believes.
Yet Ms. Helfeld, 42, has learned not to assume that everyone shares her personal indifference to honorifics. Once, when she introduced her children to an older woman by her first name, the slightest hint of disapproval crossed the woman's face. Instantly, Ms. Helfeld understood her faux pas.
"I realized that she was from a completely different school of thought than I was," she says.
Without conformity, there is confusion. But legions of baby boomers, who still listen to rock and roll and wear the same Gap clothes as their kids, would rather live with confusion than admit to being old enough to be called Mr. or Mrs. anybody. Many don't see themselves as adults in the same way their parents were adults. Many don't want to be adults in the same way their parents were adults.
That's why Lavinia Edmunds, a 40-something mom of two in Rodgers Forge, cringes when she's addressed as "Mrs.," "Miss" or "Ms." "I feel like Eddie Haskell's mom," she says with a grimace.
The reluctance of the post-World War II crowd to be dated by formal titles raises an unanticipated and thorny matter of etiquette: How should their children address elders? Waffling between generations, boomer-vintage parents don't seem to know.
Revised notions of family have eroded the traditional use of honorifics, says Dr. Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist. "Family relationships are based less on authority and more on friendship and companionship than they used to be," Dr. Cherlin says. " 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.' are titles you use when [addressing] RTC superiors. 'Bob' or 'Jane' are titles you call a friend."
But not all adults are comfortable having children address them by their first name. And for some parents, teaching their children respect for elders is one measure of their parenting skills.
A polite insistence
John Feeley, a Lutherville stay-at-home father of three daughters, believes the loss of formality exacts a social toll.
"I think there are certain ceremonies and certain polite attitudes that make civilization bearable," Mr. Feeley says. "[Honor- ifics] are part of them."
In his old-fashioned belief in propriety, Mr. Feeley gladly sees himself as atypical. Learning to open doors, saying please and thank you and other niceties boost a child's sense of well-being and confidence, Mr. Feeley says. "Any edge you can give a kid during his life doesn't hurt."
Joanne Giza, editor of Baltimore's Child, agrees. When her first two children were toddlers in the mid-1970s, she allowed them to call elders by their first name. But it didn't feel right to Mrs. Giza. She quickly reversed herself and the three Giza children grew up addressing adults by their formal titles.
Today, "People are very uncomfortable with that," Mrs. Giza says. "They want to be addressed by their first names. I felt that was really wrong. [Children are] not their peers. They owe them respect."
Once an adult is addressed by first name, that respect evaporates, Mrs. Giza says. Consequently, adults lose their clout. "Children like to know where the divisions are. Children like rules, they like control," she says. "If they don't address their grandmother or teacher by their first name, why address a 30-year-old neighbor by her first name?"
In the past, Mrs. Giza has asked her children to correct their friends if they call her "Joanne." But even Mrs. Giza is not sure how to accommodate opposing customs. If, for example, another parent wishes to be called by his or her first name, "I don't know if I can dictate to that parent," Mrs. Giza says.
When "an adult tells a child directly, 'Call me Mary,' 'Call me Sam,' it's really difficult for the parent to overrule that," says etiquette authority Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post. "I suggest that the parent go along with it." Parents can also stress to the child that using an adult's first name is an "exception to [that family's] guidelines."
In general, Mrs. Post says, honorifics are "worth sticking to." Informality may have infiltrated all aspects of life, but that doesn't mean that "this particular rule or guideline of calling adults Mr. and Mrs. should fall by the wayside," says Mrs. Post, who has received several requests for guidance on the subject. Requiring children to use honorifics makes them "learn to respect elders. It's the same thing as standing up when an adult enters a room, a custom still in effect today."
After her social stumble, Ms. Helfeld has made a point of asking adults how they would like to be addressed before she introduces them to her children, Daniel, 8, and Anna, 6. "It's very nebulous," Ms. Helfeld says. "Basically, I feel like I want my children to address each adult in the way the adult feels comfortable."
Still, quandaries arise. Ms. Helfeld, for example, frequently volunteers at her children's school where she is known as Ms. Helfeld, in keeping with school protocol. But the same children who are expected to call her Ms. Helfeld in school know her as Debbie in the car pool.
Mr. Feeley, a stickler for titles, has also faced confusing questions of propriety. The same teen baby-sitters who called him Mr. Feeley at home are now part his church's high school fellowship where members are encouraged to call all advisers, including Mr. Feeley, by their first names. "At first, it just didn't ring true," he says. "I think [the members also] were uncomfortable with that at first."
Other social customs, traditional and new, complicate the name dilemma. Perhaps because of its Southern roots, Baltimore is a place where people like to be known as "Miss Mary" or "Mr. Joe." Even this is a little too casual for Mr. Feeley, who nevertheless allows his 6-year-old daughter's best friend to call him "Mr. John."
Married couples with different last names present another challenge for children, as do hyphenated names. The use of Ms., a widely accepted neutral title of respect for women, makes it all the more difficult to master the surname game. Mrs. Post to the rescue: When confronted with uncertain matters of civility, use common sense, she says. Etiquette, in general, is "based on what's most considerate in a particular situation," she says.
Honorifics should not be used as an automatic gesture of respect whenever a child addresses an adult, Ms. Helfeld says. She is concerned that, "If you go overboard, [and teach children that] adults are always right, the child is less likely to protect himself" if he encounters an adult with harmful motives. "You don't want your children to be intimidated by you; you want them to be respectful of you, and you want to respect your children," Ms. Helfeld says.
Couples may differ on the honorific question. When it comes to addressing adults in a formal fashion, "I don't care, but my husband does," says Baltimorean Kathy Hillman, the mother of a son and daughter. "Allan will correct them," she says of her husband. "He'll tell our son Jonathan he wants his friends to call us 'Mr. and Mrs. Hillman.' "
As for Mrs. Hillman, "There are so many more serious things to be worried about," she says. "I have two teen-agers now." She doesn't care what their friends call her, "as long as it's polite."