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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 1999 /5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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On a first-name basis
with a three-year-old -- I HEARD MY NAME. My first name. Naturally, I looked up. But I was confused for a moment because I didn't see anyone. Until I looked down. You see, the person trying to get my attention was about three feet tall. He was about 3-years-old, too. A neighbor's child over playing with my kids for the morning, he was standing in my kitchen wanting help in going to the bathroom. But what in the world was a person who didn't even know his ABC's doing using my first name? When I was his age, I didn't know adults had first names. I thought they were born "Mr. Stephens" and "Mrs.Cooper."

Later, when we neighborhood kids did learn a "grown-up's" first name, it was whispered and shared almost like a secret identity. There might even be a little giggling among the children if it was a name deemed particularly eccentric. But to actually address the adult himself with his first name as if we had a right to do so, well that was unthinkable. The idea just never would have crossed our collective little radar screens.

Fast forward some 30 years later, and suddenly I'm on a first name basis with the neighbor's 3-year-old. Now I would propose that at a minimum, anyone who needs my help going to the bathroom should realize there is a significant disparity between us. And that disparity, which I would suggest continues up to about voting age, should be respected by referring to me as "Mrs. Hart."

But I've noticed more and more parents, at least where I live, allowing or even encouraging their children to be on a first-name basis with the adults around them. Such parents may think they are fostering a sense of equality between the generations. In reality, they are undermining a healthy sense of respect between them.

Hey, it's not just that I just have a mortgage and a couple of lines around my eyes. It's that part of my responsibility in the world, as it seems to me it should be for any responsible adult, is to try to be a guide and a help for the young people around us. But if those young people are not taught that there is a significant difference between them and the adults around them, not just in age but more importantly in the experience and wisdom that generally goes with age, it's the kids that are going to be at a disadvantage.

Allowing young people to regularly use first names for adults without so much as a "Miss" or "Aunt" in front seems to me one sure way of causing kids to discount the notion that they have anything special to learn from the adults in their lives. And among adults it surely helps erode the sense that these young people need our guidance.

Yet I see this too often. From adults I've had introduce themselves to my kids using their first names. Or who introduce me to their kids using my first name. Or who are stunned, and either offended or impressed, when I introduce them to my children using their last names. This phenomenon, if that's what it is, is hardly universal. But from what I've seen it's at least too prevalent.

A little life's lesson like appropriate use of names can sink in deep. I still prefer to call "mature" people "Mr." or "Mrs. so-and-so." There are the parents of my friends from childhood or high school whom I will never under any circumstances refer to by their first names no matter how old I get. Then there are a few good friends of my parents -- yes, generally the younger ones -- whom I did start calling by their first names when I became an adult. That was a right of passage if ever there was one.

When I was a child, I rebelliously informed my mother that I was going to grow up and become a school teacher and have my students call me by my first name. (I also told her I was someday going to stock my kitchen with nothing but Twinkies and HoHos.) She smiled, rightly figuring I had a lot to learn. Which is one reason why, when I was growing up, I would never have been allowed to call an adult by a first name!

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


©1999, Scripps Howard News Service