Since moving to Cambridge from Millis, I've hardly met an adult who does not want to be a on a first-name basis with my kids.
I’ve given up asking my kids to call adults “Mr.’’ or “Mrs.’’ or “Ms.’’ It’s not because my boys, 8 and 10, are going through some kind of ’tween rebellion. They don’t seem to mind using the titles. It’s because we moved this summer from Millis to Cambridge, communities that are about 30 miles, two area codes, and an entire culture apart.
“It’s Debbie,” says the principal at my boys’ new school when I try to introduce her to them by her last name. The landlady, a septuagenarian with a posh British accent, tells them to call her Gillian. At the bus stop before school, the other parents are Jessica and Emma and Trey.
I could insist, but if Mister Rogers wanted everyone to call him Fred, so be it.
On the other hand, I’m also “Hey, Mike!” to local tykes, which I find jarring. But I haven’t said anything. For one thing, when all the other parents are using their first names with kids, introducing myself as Mr. Fitzgerald makes me sound like a fusty old scold. I can’t even blame Cambridge postmodern permissiveness – the program I’m in at Harvard draws people from around the world, and they’re all on a first-name basis with my kids.
The water has poured over my name dam.
I can rationalize this. Calling adults “Mr.” or “Ms.” is dated, a reminder of hierarchies we like to think we’ve overthrown. And I want my kids to be treated fairly and with respect. If first names all around make the world a more egalitarian place, I approve that message.
My boys will grow up, and I would have had to relax with the titles at some point anyway. But when? Years from now, when my sons and their friends could legally drive? Vote? Drink? Besides, is it really so far from “Coach” Mike or “Uncle” Mike to just plain Mike? As a child, my adult relatives were Uncle Ned, Grandpa Butch, Aunt Nancy, and so on. We are all part of the human family, all God’s children. Why not just use first names?
But there remain hierarchies, and it’s good to know something about how they work. Is it confusing to my child if his “friend” gives him detention? Can my sons argue that friends don’t send friends to the principal’s office?
A new friend has tried to console me, saying that using first names shows kids that adults are their friends. But friends don’t put one another in timeout or declare at 9 p.m. that the TV must go off. Adults do those things. Adults mark report cards and give detentions. Adults back stab and cheat and say it’s in the interest of shareholders. Adults close the door to show you things they don’t want you to tell other people about.
Maybe it isn’t about the kids. One married woman we met corrected me for calling her “Mrs. Smith” in front of my boys, saying, “That’s my mother” and then asking them to call her by her first name – as if it were a bad thing to be married or to be her mother. Maybe being on a first-name basis with kids keeps adults in touch with the proverbial child within. Or maybe it frees us to be a little childish ourselves, especially when we come near a television camera. (Though it’s true that politicians address one another formally and nonetheless act like children far too much of the time.)
Or perhaps when children call adults by their first names it reminds them that children matter and should be treated with respect. That thought I can make peace with.
Once, it meant something special if people were on a first-name basis. Gilbert and Sullivan, the great Victorian-era English light opera duo, collaborated for 25 years and yet never felt comfortable using each other’s first names. And now that we’re all on a first-name basis, it can be a sign of intimacy to know someone’s last name. A woman we met at the bus stop invited us to dinner recently, where, after having seen each other every weekday morning for several months, we learned her last name.
The next Monday, I saw Jessica as usual at the bus stop. For the sake of the address book, I asked her how she spelled her last name. She spelled it, and as she turned to leave, she asked, “By the way, what is your last name?”
Michael Fitzgerald is a 2011 Nieman fellow at Harvard University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.