What’s your name?

"Mr. Lance" with his Tiger and Webelos, Harris and Barron.

"Mr. Lance" with his Tiger and Webelos, Harris and Barron.

After going through Cub Scouts all the way from Bobcat to Webelos with my oldest son, Barron, I’m now re-entering the cycle with Harris, my middle son. Only this time, I’ve put myself on the sacrificial altar of den leadership.

Planning and executing meetings and outings with my co-leader, Kathy, isn’t the hard part. The challenge is building good relationships with the boys, finding the right balance between authority and approachability that makes the experience enjoyable and meaningful for them.

Last month our den met for the first time, and I was once again faced with a conundrum. When introducing myself to a group of children I’m about to lead in an activity, I have no idea how to refer to myself.

Am I Mr. Lance or Mr. Wallace?

As a child, I was always taught to call people by their last name with the appropriate courtesy title, as in “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Jones.” But when I became an adult, I was reluctant to insist on children calling me the stodgy “Mr. Wallace” and often opted for “Mr. Lance.”

To me, the first name with courtesy title approach is more informal and friendly. Using a person’s last name with a courtesy title feels stuffy and self-important. I prefer “Mr. Lance” in most settings because I think of myself as friendly and approachable. It’s as much about how I see myself as how I want the kids to see me.

I first adopted the title of “Mr. Lance” back when I taught a group of about a dozen boys in a missions class on Wednesday nights at my church in Macon. I was comfortable being “Mr. Lance” back then because I was newly married, still in my 20s and didn’t have any children of my own. Three minutes into the first session I realized I needed a whistle, lion-tamer’s chair and more authority than even “Mr. Wallace” could create.

Scarlett O'Hara

I guess you have to go by "Miss Scarlett" if you've been married so many times people don't know whether to call you Ms. O'Hara, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Kennedy or Mrs. Butler.

I have a theory about this calling-adults-by-their-first-name-with-a-courtesy-title business. I think it’s Southern. It wasn’t until I got to Macon that I ever heard this practice. And now whenever I hear it or say it, I can’t help but think of Miss Scarlet from
“Gone With the Wind.”

There are some settings in which I prefer the use of my last name. When I’m in a waiting room for a doctor’s appointment, for example, I don’t want to be called “Mr. Lance.” That’s just weird. When it’s time for me, just call me “Mr. Wallace.” There are plenty of settings when formality and distance are preferred.

My reaction against “Mr. Wallace” isn’t because it sounds like my dad. My dad is a preacher, so he is rarely referred to as Mr. Wallace. In fact, he goes by a courtesy title that’s even scarier to me: Rev. Wallace. Because both my brothers are ordained Baptist ministers, they may have more of an issue with being confused with our father than I do.

So what is your practice? Is this a Southern thing? How should kids refer to adults in the New South?

For now, I think I’ll stick with Mr. Lance. I’ve got a whole den of Tiger cubs calling me that, so turning back is not an option.

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About lanceelliottwallace

Lance Elliott Wallace lives and writes in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. A native of Texas and a former resident of Florida and Alabama, Lance married a Georgia girl and together they are rearing three Georgia boys. By day he communicates for Georgia Tech engineers and scientists. He spends his early morning hours praying, writing and running.
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3 Responses to What’s your name?

  1. Emily says:

    I’m still resisting the “Miss” at all. There’s something about the age insinuation in the title.

  2. PJ says:

    When I was teaching high-school Spanish, my kids always called me senora (or Senora Parris). At church the Parrises have become Mr. Bob and Mrs. Paula. Of course, all the kids say Miss or Ms. instead of Mrs. Nearly all of my doctors call me Paula and don’t use a title at all, which is what I prefer. I agree that the titles of Mr. and Miss/Ms./Mrs. with first names are probably Southern in origin.

    I once taught my son English when he was a 7th grader, and friends often asked me what he called me in class. “Nothing,” I usually replied, “he just raises his hand like everyone else.”

  3. Susan Hailey says:

    All three of my children have always used the courtesy title and the first name of most of the adults they have known through church. The exception would be those with professional titles like Dr. Jones or Dr. Yost. They called Dr. Rodney Browne “Dr. Rod” while in Macon. He graciously accepted that moniker. Loving your essays, Mr. Lance!

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