A few weeks ago I met a friend at a park so our kids could have a playdate. She had just moved to San Diego from Hawaii, where she had lived most of her life. After the kids had been playing for a while, they told us they were hungry. My friend had a bunch of snacks my kids were coveting, so they addressed her by her first name, and then politely asked if they could have some of them. She gave them the snacks, but as soon as they were out of sight, she turned to me and mockingly admonished, “Why aren’t your kids calling me ‘aunty?’ Have you been living [on] the mainland too long?”
There it was — I was caught in the parent name trap again.
In Hawaii, locals expect children to call adults either “aunty” or “uncle” regardless of whether or not the kids are related to them. I didn’t move to Hawaii until I was in elementary school, and by then I was already hardwired with my Southern manners (I was born in Georgia) to address adults as “Mr.,” “Miss,” or “Mrs.” unless they told me otherwise. The only exceptions to this rule were the few adult friends my mom had; she insisted I call them “A Yi,” which means aunty in Chinese. But to this day, I still have a hard time calling adults older than me aunty or uncle.
So when we had our own kids, my husband and I took an informal tactic. We decided to let our kids call other adults by their first names unless the adults preferred a more formal salutation. I tell all my children’s friends to call me Tracey. For the most part, it’s worked out fine — with a few exceptions.
For instance, when we’re in Hawaii visiting family, most of our friends expect to be called aunty or uncle. We let our kids do it, but when we return to San Diego, they always get confused and want us to explain whether our friends are really related to them or are just friends.
Here in San Diego, it’s not common for adults to be referred to as aunt or uncle unless there’s a cultural influence. In fact, a mom in a playgroup actually told me she’d be offended if a child called her “aunty” because she felt like it was throwing around a familial name in vain. She told me she preferred the salutation with which most preschoolers are familiar: Miss + the adult’s first name, e.g. Miss Kate. While I wouldn’t be offended if a kid called me his aunt if I really wasn’t, I’d probably just tell him to call me Tracey to keep things simpler.
Luckily, most of our friends and neighbors are just fine being called by their first names. I try to teach my kids that they should call adults whatever they prefer – whether it’s Mrs. Johnson, Miss Jennifer, Jim, or uncle Jack. I just don’t want them saying, “Hey, you!” or “old lady” like they’ve jokingly called me a few times.
So what do your kids do? Can they call your friends by their first name? Or do you prefer a more formal salutation?
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