Hats off to Danielle Larkins for calling attention to the new American custom: filial impiety. While Asian cultures teach the young to respect their elders, Americans, Larkin explains, are increasingly comfortable with young people who disrespect their elders.
If you were wondering why Johnny cannot learn, why Janey misbehaves and why no one seems capable of taking advice, here’s a place to start. In the new filial impiety children are allowed to address adults by their first names.
I have no problem calling it a symptom of cultural decline. It didn’t used to be this way. Larkins recalls a time, not all that long ago when things were different:
I was 13 when I thought it would be fun to call my 8th grade teacher by her first name. More out of boredom than disrespect, my normally good judgment lapsed and I acted out by responding to her, “Yes, Nancy.” I was promptly sent to the principal’s office, and I didn’t think it was so fun after that. I hung my head in shame and dreaded the reprimanding to come. My parents were informed of the incident and were certain to correct my misbehavior. “You will never address an adult by her first name, do you understand? Never.”
My, how things have changed:
Today, however, this so-called misbehavior is marginalized. Calling adults by their first name has become the cultural norm in households, neighborhoods, and even schools. In most circles I am introduced to children as Ms. Danielle. What ever happened to Mrs. Larkins? Did my last name escape my womb along with my child? Is this a regional phenomenon? Maybe it’s his Midwestern sensibilities, but my husband has taken notice of this trend as well. And we find ourselves in the minority as we wonder how addressing an adult by his or her last name has become a thing of the past.
For what it’s worth, and it may not be worth very much, female physicians, especially those who work with children and adolescents often present themselves with their titles and first names: Dr. Stephanie. One suspects that, in some quarters, it represents a rebellion against patronymic surnames.
Larkins says that she is not being judgmental, but, what the heck, perhaps we ought to be judgmental. If I may read into her remarks, she is implying that the mania over self-esteem, the notion that you are just as good if not better than everyone else, has produced a custom that systematically disrespects those who are older, more experienced and presumably wiser.
I’m not judging other parents for how they raise their children, despite my disagreement on this topic. I just don’t understand why the tradition stopped. Has our culture lost its respect for its elders? Have we just become a more informal society? Or maybe our desire to elevate our kids’ self worth has gone overboard, and we don’t want our kids to feel they are “beneath” anyone else. When I’ve asked other parents why they don’t teach their children to address adults by their surname they seem uncertain – as if it is the first time they’ve thought about it. My guess is that they succumb to the rationale that “everyone else is doing it so I will too.”
People who would be horrified at the thought that they are conformists are happily and unthinkingly conforming to this new assertion of radical individuality.
Larkins will not say that this habit contributes to youth misbehavior, but I will. She is correct to say that this custom establishes a relationship of disrespect. One must add that it disestablishes deference, and says that no one knows more than you and that no one deserves to be respected for as much. One can only wonder what happens when these children go out in the world and speak to their managers with this level of disrespect?
In Larkins’ words:
I’m not saying that addressing an adult by his or her surname is the reason for American youth misbehavior. I also understand that adults earn respect through their actions, not by their title. I do believe, however, that this simple step is the first action a child can take in establishing a respectful relationship. And maybe, just maybe, it serves a greater good than just upholding an old school tradition. Perhaps this etiquette provides a conscious (and subconscious) appreciation for our elders who are deserving of our acknowledgement and our respect.
How are children to learn anything if they fail to respect those who might teach them something? How are children going to build character if they refuse to emulate those who set an example of better character?
If you are taught, by common custom, to disrespect those older and wiser than you, you are saying that you know everything that is worth knowing, that you are just as smart as those who have earned their wisdom by hard work.
Have we fallen into this bad habit because we believe that we are fighting inequality? Did we fall into it because we have come to believe that we can change reality by changing the way we use pronouns and proper names? I suspect that both are correct. It feels like we have gone completely off the cultural rails.
What’s next? Banning Mommy and Daddy because they are sexist terms which imply patriarchal privilege?