To Be “Cool” Parents, Baby Boomers Screwed Up Respect

Why kids today should still address their elders with "Mr." and "Mrs."

I called my brother the other day and my 17-year-old nephew picked up. Nice kid, goes to your typical suburban high school, obsessed with the Doors and the Flyers (though not always in that order). When I told him, “Hi, it’s Uncle Mike,” he responded with, “Hey, Michael! How the hell are you?”

Hey Michael? And, How the hell are you?


Much has been written about the demise of manners in young people, and of course this is hardly a new hue and cry. I can remember being a teenager back in the late 1970s and hearing my own parents lament the coarsening of public interaction, and how rock music was going to destroy Western civilization. (It didn’t, though it did do a number on a fair number of Baby Boomers’ hearing.) I’m not trying to argue my nephew was being rude—that clearly was not his intent—but I found the salutation unnerving all the same.

When I was growing up, our neighbors weren’t Ruth or Joe or Cathy, but rather Mrs. Donahue, Uncle Joe, Mrs. Salvatore. There was a certain minimum level of deference one paid to the generation before, and it was enforced by the people of that generation that headed your own household. Now, not so much.

I told my brother Pat, like me an uncle to this particular nephew, about my phone call, and to my astonishment he sided with the youngster. “I don’t need them to call me ‘Uncle’ anymore,” he said. “What are they, five?”

I can’t quite agree. I hope I am, and certainly try to be, a mentor and a role model to my eight nephews and my niece, and to the various progeny my friends have produced over the years. But I am not their friend, at least not in the way one 15-year-old is with other 15-year-olds who accompany them to the mall or to the movies. There’s a reason those lines exist, chief among them that there is a tacit acknowledgement that one’s life experience warrants at least a modicum of respect from the generation that comes after.

The Boomers—and I am one of them—blew many things on our road to taking over the wheel in American society, but here is one of the most egregious blunders I think we pulled. We spent way too much time worried that our kids wouldn’t like us, that they wouldn’t confide in us, that—horror of horrors—there might come a day when they wouldn’t need us. And so as a group we embarked on a journey that said no matter how we parented, we were not going to parent like our parents had. We were going to be hipper, funnier, breezier, when it came to turning out the next wave. And one of the key ways that was marked was by ushering in an era of informality when it came to dealing with young people, telling our neighbors’ kids and our friends’ kids and our co-workers’ kids, “Just call me Joe” or “Oh, no, Mrs. Smith is my mother! I’m Nancy.”

It was a mistake. And not an insignificant one, either. Because monikers like “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and “Ms.” (and even the antique “Miss,” now only associated with beauty queens) remind children that in life dues are paid as you go along, that interpersonal intimacy is earned, not cavalierly bequeathed out of some misguided attempt to be cool (and, perhaps more to the point, not grow old). It’s a thread that leads to other lost or, at minimum, disappearing civil courtesies, like being a man who waits for women to get off the elevator first, or giving up your seat in public transit to someone elderly or pregnant. When we gradually erase these kinds of guideposts from our behaviors in the name of modernity, is it any wonder that the generation behind us turns out to be self-absorbed, rude and entitled?

OK, so that is too broad a brush to coat an entire class of young people with. Fair enough. But there are few who would argue that the Boomers were the first to get a bit lax in the old manners department. And we can’t keep decrying that slide without (a) taking responsibility for creating much of it and (b) trying to do something about it.

Which may be why, at my mother’s 80th birthday celebration this past weekend, I greeted my Aunt Mary and my Uncle Neil using their formal familial titles, and inquired to my cousins about my Aunt Kel’s health in the same manner. And while I do my level best to fight the hands of time by swimming and moisturizing and watching what I eat, I also smile when a child comes up to me and says, “Hello, Mr. Callahan.” Because yes, that’s my dad. But it’s also now me.