Mom: Formality can help weave us together

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“Anuja, tie my shoe!” the 2-year-old girl politely pleaded. I smiled and squatted, genuinely happy to help, but an involuntary cringe grabbed my gut, as it does every time a single-digit-aged adolescent calls me by my first name instead of Mrs. Rajendra, Miss Anuja or, my favorite, Anuja Auntie.

I’ve tried to surrender to the reality that many kids today are taught to address grownups on a first-name basis, but cling to the Cleaver-esque reality I grew up with — where the younger generation was guided to vocalize respect for the one before it, and the older enjoyed the fruits of formality.

I grew up in an America where, like all my friends, I called my friend’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Ward, my babysitter Ms. Carol and our neighbor Mr. Montgomery. Carrying on culture from my parents’ ancestors, our family friends — whether lifetime or met in line at the grocery store — were lovingly referred to as Uncle and Auntie. This helped weave people together.

A parent now, I still refer to many elders with formality. I don’t feel diminishment to my ego or the relationship by showing them respect for having lived longer. I expect and hope the same for my children, but more and more adults admonish formality and I feel like a dinosaur drudging up decades-old decency.

I instilled this ideal as a new mom hiring our first babysitter. Lisa was a 19-year-old college student and I asked her if my kids could call her Lisa Auntie, to make her “help” feel more familial. Looking back, it seems funny I asked and perhaps stranger that she said “Sure!” Perhaps she needed the money or, as she hailed from a hierarchical Italian family, she enjoyed the words’ warmth.

Today Lisa is mom to two tots I hope will call me Anuja Auntie.

The next sitter was Lisa’s friend, another college student who became Anne Auntie. Then, Katie Auntie — a 20-something science teacher and mom herself now. We’ve adapted from insider infancy and our sitters these days run the gamut of Miss Bryn, Miss Taylor and Miss Missy, but my kids appreciate each adult looking out for them, and this doesn’t stop them from having huge fun together. The labels accentuate childhood — where kids can be kids, adults can be adults, and we all benefit from a growing, extended family.

I’m all for egalitarianism as a working woman and equal partner in a happy marriage. I chose not to be given away at my wedding and kept my maiden name. Elders don’t always know best and youngsters should be empowered to exceed age-limiting barriers. I know my peers care no less about the next generation than our foremothers, despite diminishing formality. Just look at our inspiring parent communities here in Ann Arbor!

I want for my children the web of support that I had — where they can know through an easy label who is the adult and who is the 2-year-old and enjoy the sense of peace and familiarity that comes from knowing they are surrounded by grownups, most of whom care for their well-being.

I smile when I see my kids ask Mrs. Arnold, Dr. Tim or Elizabeth Auntie to help them with their shoes, or their kids ask me, as we collectively share the buoyancy and burdens of bringing up babies.

Anuja Rajendra

The author, Anuja Rajendra, is the mother of two sons. A U-M grad, she’s lived in Ann Arbor for 16 years. She’s the founder and CEO of BollyFit.