December 28, 1993

Article at Plain Dealer

You don't have to call him Mr.


I am the father of three young children. Among other things (like how to eat with a fork), I am trying to teach them that all people are created equal, including children. That they are endowed with certain inalienable rights that even adults can't take away from them. And that their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may include speaking out against authority from time to time.

In short, I am trying to teach them that they are powerful. That they have a voice and a say in what happens to them. 

I am doing this because I read every day of teachers, clergy, Boy Scout leaders, and other adults who abuse their authority and, worse, the very kids who trust and respect them. I read today, for example, of a rash of kidnappings and a possible serial child-killer in St. Louis. I am doing this because the world may be unjust, but it seems less so if you learn to speak out against injustice.

Because of these lessons, my 8-year-old son doesn't hesitate to question and challenge his teachers. And sometimes, to his great satisfaction, one of them admits she was wrong or that she had never looked at it that way before. My 5-year-old son points out to his kindergarten teacher that she is unfairly calling on only one side of the room. She apologizes and begins calling on both sides.

Because of these lessons, my kids aren't afraid of adults. They aren't afraid to say no to them, and they aren't afraid to assert themselves.

This kind of thinking, which I hope will help protect my kids against abusive and dangerous adults, often leads my kids to call friends and neighbors of ours by their first names. Which oftenleads these adults to act like they've just been cursed at.

When this happens, which is more often than I can believe, the wounded adult will ask the offending child to call her Mrs., or Mr., as the case may be. My kids always comply without an argument. And as far as I'm concerned, no harm has been done, although I can see my kids shrink down a bit as a peasant might in the presence of royalty.

But here's the rub: These same adults who dictate what my kids call them also dictate what their kids call me. For example, just the other day, a neighbor told my son he preferred to be called Mr. -------. Later that day, I told his son who is 17 that I preferred to be called Jim. When his father heard him do as I had asked, he corrected him. When I told the man that I had asked his son to call me Jim, he said he could not allow it.

Am I missing something here? Am I asking too much to be called by the name I choose? Am I breaking some monumental taboo by choosing to interact with his almost-adult son on more common ground? Is this denial of my wishes really the way to teach his son to show me respect?

I was wondering because I certainly didn't feel respected. I felt disrespected. In fact, I felt small and weak, like I was not competent enough to know what I should be called. Here in the course of five minutes, Mr. -------- had humbled not just my 8-year-old, but me too, a full grown 35-year-old father of three. He had done it, I suppose, in the name of decorum, propriety and decency.

Well, that's his name for it. I call it ludicrous and outdated, this Mr. and Mrs. stuff. I think it sets up an unfair advantage for adults who have so many inherent advantages over kids already. I think it's a false show of respect demanded by adults who may have trouble earning the respect of kids. And I think it may help condition kids to blindly do whatever adults say, which is the last thing we should be teaching our kids.

And yet, having said all that, I am still willing to respect any adult's request that my children address him or her as Mr. or Mrs. because I believe that people have the right to name themselves. In the '60s, people of color, tired of being called Negroes, named themselves blacks. Recently, they renamed themselves African-Americans.

Women, tired of being Mrs. Some-Guy's-Name, changed their name to Ms. Some changed it back. To each her own. Well, all I want is the right to be called my name. And Mr. Sollisch just isn't my name. It sounds stiff and foreign in my ears. It rings false. It makes me tense. It makes me feel old and outdated.

So if you really want your kids to show me respect, try showing me some respect yourself. Just because you decide to stand on ceremony, don't think you can make me stand there with you. Because the next time you tell your kids that have to call me Mr. Sollisch, don't be surprised if I call you a couple of names you won't appreciate.