Rabbi Ross. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed something that drives me crazy. My neighbors are a wonderful Frum family, but they let their children call adults by their first names. My English name is Steven, and I find it so odd that these 9-year-olds are calling me like that. I would assume they would say “Mr. Sacks” because it’s more respectful. My children were taught never to address an adult by their name. I was curious how you felt about this. Steven Sacks – Brooklyn
Mr. Sacks, thank you for your question. This issue has been bothering me for so many years, and I was wondering when someone would bring this up. There is a simple answer to this question, and, although it may seem complicated, it’s pretty straightforward.
The answer is, yes, children should call adults with a proper title. You should be called Mr. Sacks by your neighbor’s children. This is not only an issue of respect for you, it’s a great way to teach children respect for their elders.
However, this somewhat simple concept often gets confusing. How do we define children versus adults? A six-year-old boy should not call his adult neighbors by their first name. How about an 18-year-old? At what age is it acceptable, if ever? Furthermore, what if this particular neighbor tells your six-year-old, “Call me Jerry”. Is that OK?
Additionally, there is also the family issue. When dealing with uncles and aunts, should children include a title when speaking to them? If the aunt’s name is Sara, should a child call her Sara, or Aunt Sara? What if this aunt doesn’t want the title added? Then there are those families that are careful to address adults by Mr. or Mrs., however, are less stringent with their own family members or very close family friends.
This is where parenting comes into play. I believe that we, as parents, should teach our children to address adults with a title. We should explain to them that we need to give respect to those that are older than us, and that one of the ways of accomplishing this is by calling them Mr. or Mrs., or even Dr.
However, we can also tell our children that there are exceptions to this rule. If someone requests that they be called by their first name, doing so in and of itself is a sign of respect. The same holds true with aunts and uncles. Ideally, they should have a title (unless the uncle or aunt is the same, or similar, age). If, however, this family member does not want a title, for whatever reason, the child (and you) should respect their decision. One girl told me that having “aunt” in front of her name, makes her feel old. That’s as good a reason as anything else.
On a somewhat related note, is calling someone by their first name only an issue of honor and respect? How about men calling married women by their first names? Although many people have no problem doing this, there are those who say it’s terribly inappropriate. There is something to be said (from a Tznius perspective) about not being on a “first-name basis”. This is valid sensitivity that some might have and should ask their Rav for guidance. A lot of this depends on situational awareness, but again, it’s not the type of question I can answer.
In conclusion, how we address adults and people in general boils down to one important lesson. Teach your children to be respectful of others – especially elders. Once you’ve accomplished this, everything else becomes smooth sailing. How to accomplish this? Well, you’ll have to read my response to that question in my next email. Alternatively, you can ask your own parents. They probably did a fine job.
Have a great Shabbos!
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.