Thomas, I can’t believe that my opinion will settle the dispute between you and your wife, but I am going to offer it anyway—and come down solidly on your side. Of course, you and I are probably going to lose in the long run because ours has become a first-name world. People call my house every night saying, “Hi, may I speak to Bettye?” If I ask who is calling, I get something like, “This is Frank,” and the caller is typically from some organization wanting a contribution. But my caller doesn’t offer his last name and doesn’t address me by mine. Nor does he address me with a courtesy title. This sort of thing happens everywhere. New secretaries at my office are calling me “Bettye” within a week of their arrival. Graduate students—sort of a last bastion of respect and even obsequiousness—will sometimes come up to me after a lecture and ask, “Bettye, when you did that study, did you. .?”
To one who grew up in the south saying, “Ma’am” and “Sir,” this informal address has an alien ring to it. And though I encounter it all the time, I don’t entirely like it.
But, back to the debate with your wife. as I was trying to show in the above examples, she is 100 percent correct that titles have become old-fashioned. So I think the thing to do is for the two of you to work out some sort of compromise that you both can live with. In directing childcare, or in training personnel who were going to work there, I always insisted that a title for staff members be used and would informally poll personnel to find out what they preferred. In many different parts of the country people like “Miss” with a first name, even if the person was married—Miss Peggy, Miss Ruth, Mr. Bill etc. I mention that pattern because many people seem to think that is an acceptable arrangement for family friends and relatives as well as for employed workers. Even with this as a pattern, however, very young children seem to put an age criterion into their own personal rule. For example, when student teachers would come to work temporarily, in no time most of the children would call them by their first names and omit any sort of title.
So good luck in finding a compromise that is acceptable to both you and your wife—and maybe to me as well. The important thing will be consistency in applying the decision.
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