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Name Game Is Big Puzzle For Parents


Phyllis Caldwell is a woman with too many names.

On a recent morning, while helping out in her daughter's pre-kindergarten class at Sidwell Friends School, a little voice rings out: "Lauren's Mom! Lauren's Mom!"

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The teacher jumps in to correct the girl: "Mrs. Caldwell will be there in a moment."

Mrs. Caldwell? Lauren's Mom? Or Phyllis, as another child sitting in the corner has called her since she was two years old.

Lauren Caldwell's schoolmates have crystallized one of the great dilemmas of baby-boomer parenthood: How should kids address adults?

For Phyllis Caldwell, a banker whose oldest child is 6, the decision is not easy. She opts for "Mrs. Caldwell," even though a part of her still thinks of that as her mother-in-law. But, she says, "I'm looking down the road, and I don't want to have 12-year-olds calling me Phyllis."

In this age of ever-expanding informality, where casual Fridays are giving way to casual Everydays, some parents are saying "enough." Kids need to learn respect for their elders, they say, and the place to start is with a little old-fashioned etiquette.

The whole name game matters more than many people might imagine, in part because of the subtle signals the choice of address can send about social class and upbringing.

Many parents today are perfectly comfortable with having their kids' friends call them Jim or Jane, and many, in fact, prefer it. The formal route seems stuffy.

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Others can't decide. Basically, it's a jungle out there.

Columnist Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, thinks this "chaotic nonsystem we have about names" isn't fair to children, and that adults need to give them guidance.

"The overriding rule is you address people as they wish to be addressed," says Mrs. Martin in an interview. "So the child should start out with 'Mrs. Feldmann.' If you want, you can lean over and say, 'Oh, you make me feel so old. Mrs. Feldmann is my mother, or my mother-in-law. Call me Bubbles.' Then the child is supposed to call you Bubbles."

Of course, the world isn't nearly so simple. Some moms' surnames differ from their kids', so a child has more to remember than just his friend's last name. Some women want "Ms." or "Miss" instead of "Mrs." And in some families, one parent is willing to go on a first-name basis, while the other wants to go formal.

"I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I want to be called Mr. Conde," says Jack Conde, a computer specialist with a five-year-old daughter. "I think I've earned it."

His wife, Giuliana Reed, lets kids call her by her first name, but with some ambivalence. "I think they lose something with that," says Ms. Reed, a psychotherapist. "There are hierarchies in life that are important to recognize."

Some parents recognize the gray area of their kids' relations with close adult friends by making them honorary aunts and uncles. Mrs. Caldwell says the children of her close friends will always get to call her just Phyllis.

Then, as children emerge into adulthood, there's the whole issue of when, if at all, to make the switch from formal to first-name basis. Again, says Judith Martin, it's the older person's call as to when the transition takes place.

"Etiquette is like the law, in that there are many, many, many different rules," explains Martin. "Sometimes they conflict, and you have to decide which prevails."

Some children, sensing they're on wobbly territory, avoid the issue altogether. Some just start talking to an adult without calling them anything. Others use the old eye-contact trick. When Zachary Noel, a six-year-old from Pembroke, N.H., wants to get an adult's attention, he just stands in front of them until they ask him what he wants, reports his mother, Karen Noel.

Customs can also vary from region to region. In California, informality reigns. In the South, some kids are still trained to say "ma'am" and "sir." In some day cares, the children call their caregivers by their first names, but with "Miss" in front, such as "Miss Julie."

Some believe that a gradual cultural shift has prompted today's debate over just what to call whom.

"Historically, emphasis on good manners was one way members of the elite class and aspiring middle class distinguished themselves from the working masses or immigrant masses," says Paul Boyer, a cultural historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"There has been a very definite change in American culture, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened. I suppose the 60s was one point of transition, but I suspect it's been a more gradual process in the 20th century."

Professor Boyer suspects we've hit bottom in the dumbing-down of our manners and are now searching for the right balance. "That's part of what's going on in the culture wars today, with reference to school reform," he says. "The same people who advocate school uniforms I'm sure would also advocate more respect, more deference toward teachers."

THE one realm where traditional formality has held is in schools. Most educators believe the use of formal address for teachers is an important element in teaching children respect, and in firmly delineating the roles of students and teachers.

Still, there are exceptions. At Georgetown Day School, a respected private school here, students and faculty operate on a first-name basis - and have since the school was founded in 1945. The families who started the school were close friends, and everyone went by first names, a tradition that has stuck.

Wes Gibson, the school's assistant head, says the informal environment helps children feel relaxed in their learning, but without any sacrifice of respect. Of course, as a private school, "having a self-selecting population certainly makes a big difference," he says.

Alyson Rogers, a senior at Georgetown Day, says she thinks attending the school has prepared her well for the outside world. "I see adults more as people, not just as grown-ups," she says.

Miss Manners might be one to find fault with the Georgetown Day approach, but as a graduate of the school, with other family affiliations there, she supports its traditions. During her years as the president of the school's board, the issue of changing the first-name practice came up, and Martin admits she was torn, but the policy held.

She also notes that Georgetown Day is willing to bend the rules, though in the school's entire history, only one teacher has insisted on being called Mrs., followed by her full last name.

That person was Judith Martin's mother - known to her students only as Mrs. Perlman.

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