My mom wasn’t particularly strict. She was more preoccupied with keeping all twelve of us alive and fed to worry about discipline. There was one thing, however, that she wouldn’t tolerate: people younger than her calling her by her first name, Mary. She was strictly Mrs. McKenna. I have brother-in-laws well into their 50’s who still refer to her as such. This sign of respect is how they’ve stayed on her right side. For my mom, referring to your elders by their first names is a sign of disrespect and lacks the deference she wants to see from children. When I was growing up, the rest of the world concurred. I never called teachers or my friends’ parents by their first names. To do so would feel too familiar. It, also, was never even offered as an option. Forcing kids to refer to adults by their title established an immutable distinction between kids and adults.
Something about that dynamic must have worked, at least for me. I may have started smoking at 12, drinking by 13, and broke countless other laws, but I never once mouthed off to my mom. When my mom is struggling to find the most favorable achievements of my childhood, this is always the fact that she returns to. I may have disrespected her behind her back by never listening to her and doing whatever the hell I wanted, but I never called her a bitch or mouthed off to her. It’s evident that my mom is grasping at straws whenever she praises the “respect” I gave her as an adolescent.
When I had kids and began having to consort with even more kids, I told all of them my name was Elizabeth, and I’m not even really sure why. Maybe because standing on formality just seemed too passé. Or perhaps it’s because I don’t think of myself as a Mrs. Christie, which sounds more like the name of a teacher than a rad mom who lives on the edge and lets her kids eat cookies on weeknights sometimes. And all the other new parents around me did the same, encouraging kids who aren’t their own to call them by their first names.
On the other side of this first name experiment, I wonder if there was something to the decorum and the distance placed between adults and children by having them address us by our formal titles. These names seemed to promote fealty to one’s elders. As a parent, I’ve noticed a lot of attitude coming my way from all the six and seven-year-olds I’ve encountered (my daughter Darla included). Since they refer to me by my first name, the may feel like we’re peers and approach me accordingly. And let me tell you, nothing makes the rage bubble up to the surface more than six-year-old acting like he or she is your cohort. I worked hard for this status. I was pregnant for 20 months, pushed two kids out, and raised those two kids from birth. I can barely handle the attitude I get from them, so it’s extra challenging to hear it coming from one of their’ friends.
Recently, I had some of Darla’s friends over for a playdate. I let the kids run wild in my house, thinking that providing a space for the kids to play would be enough. I decided to take five minutes to read, but even those five minutes were frequently interrupted as they begged me to let them play “Pie Face” (the game that’s kind of like Russian Roulette, but with whipped cream). Finally, I gave up on the bit of free time I thought the playdate would offer and went into the game closet to get it. As I bent down to grab it, I felt a rubber ball hit my back, and heard a child’s voice say “You bum mom.”
Nothing stabs me in the heart more than disapproval from young children. Insults from a first grader sting just as much as they did when I was in first grade. One might argue that I’m in a state of arrested development, but, in my weaker moments, I would say that kids are a divining rod for the coolest stuff. If a child derides you, you deserve every bit of that disdain. So, as I sat in the game closet, I felt myself deflate. “I’m totally a lazy bum. How did they know? What am I doing with my life? I should be out climbing mountains, not sitting inside reading. I’m the worst!” As I fell down the shame spiral, I remembered that I was an adult and those kids were guests in my house, and then I was pissed. I said nothing since they weren’t mine and I never know how other parents feel about people who reprimand their kids, but I seethed and felt very wronged for a bit. I let this one slide but decided that I had to establish some boundaries with future playdates (lest I come across as a total pushover). I made a mental note that the kid had one chance before this child wasn't invited over anymore.
As much as I want to belt out in an acapella version of “What’s the Matter with Kids Today,” I realize that kids are just as bratty now as they were in the 80’s. In fact, the eighties seemed to breed disrespectful children exclusively. Neon shirts, fingerless gloves, and skateboards lend themselves well to bitchiness and eye rolling. I don’t recall much of the brattiness my friends may have exhibited, but I’m pretty sure if I ever watched my friends act rude to their parents, I assumed the parents deserved it.
Ultimately, my meditation on the rudeness of children (mine included) has led me to a dead end since it seems that attitude is a rite of passage. I’m sure cave children were even total jerks to their cave parents. So, like previous generations of parents, I'm stuck trying to figure out how to raise respectful children in deference to their desire to act completely disrespectful. I'm hoping my zero tolerance for rudeness in my home will create a positive difference in the world, just as long as my kids start learning the lessons.
And, as upset I get when six-year-old mouths off at me, I, ultimately, want them to like me because I have issues with self-esteem. If I’m not positively reflected back by a six-year-old, how am I going to manage to impress any of my cohorts? I am happy to report that the same child who called me a “bum mom” loved the pasta I made, so I feel like coming out on top of that situation.