Grain of Salt: Should I Make My Kid Call Me Ma’am? Plus, A Racist Pet

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Dear Salt,

I’m not from around here, and have never gotten used to kids calling adults "ma'am" and "sir." Now I have a kid, and my husband wants us to teach him to use those forms of address. I recognize that it's a Southern custom, and that there are advantages to learning how to do it. It just sounds ... weird. I can't imagine asking my toddler to call me "ma'am." Any advice?

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So, oddly enough, I’m from around here, was taught to use “ma’am” and “sir” (even to my parents) and I shared your reservations when I became a parent. When I was 14, my boarding school house counselors complained to my parents about my sarcasm. Though I wasn’t the nicest child in the world, I couldn’t think of anything I had said or done to make them feel that way. Turns out “ma’am” and “sir” don’t sound so polite to Massachusetts math teachers and their wives. But that doesn’t solve your problem.

For some of us, teaching our children to address their very own loving parents in such a formal way feels weird. Because it kind of is. Ultimately, we decided to loosely encourage it and my parents did the rest. (We’ve made a lot of vague decisions as parents and I have high hopes that it’ll turn out fine.) Since I had mixed feelings about the whole thing, it didn’t bother me when the grandparents insisted on it because they always did it nicely and in a matter-of-fact way, barely interrupting the flow of the conversation.

At home, we went with the “when in doubt” approach. We taught them to always answer in a polite way, like “yes, please” instead of “yeah” if they were offered ice cream. And “no, thank you” is a perfectly fine response to an offer of illicit drugs or junk food. We talked to our boys about tone and how it was probably more important than specific words, and we also told them about Southern culture and how there are times when the easiest (or even only) way to make a good impression is by using “ma’am” or “sir.”

So this is what I think you should do: Let your husband take the lead. You don’t necessarily have to insist on those words, but try not to cringe when your son uses them. In the real world, your son will come across all kinds of people, and knowing different ways to be polite is nothing but an advantage.

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Dear Salt,

I love my sweet, sweet pupper. He's adorable, silly, and affectionate.

Unless you're black.

That's right. My dog is racist. The problem is, I'd like to be able to bring my dog around my friends and have friends over without having to worry about him making them uncomfortable. I've tried giving my non-pasty pale friends treats to give to him, etc. but nothing seems to work.

Anne Wolfe Postic Grain of Salt author photo

Anne Wolfe Postic is a Columbia-based writer.

***

I sympathize. My dog, an adorable fluffy Bichon, is a pervert. I might as well buy him a gold chain, some tight polyester pants, and a few shirts that unbutton to the navel, because he approaches some of my guests with a disco pelvic thrust, a desperate and sad precursor to his awkward attempts at humping. He’s bisexual, and he definitely has a type, but I’ll spare you further description. My point? I didn’t teach him to be this way. I don’t hump any of my guests, nor do I lower my eyelids and approach them with my tongue hanging out when they walk in the door. Also, I’m not bisexual. Anyhow, he is what he is.

If your dog were human, I’d recommend therapy, plenty of reading, and a few other things. As smart as we may think our dogs are, they definitely aren’t. I know this because my dog just spent the day trying to hide a bone he’s convinced everyone in the house wants. We do not want this nasty bone.

As a quick search of the internet proves, you certainly aren’t the first person to have this problem, and you probably didn’t do anything to cause it. (Full disclosure: I know this letter writer and I don’t believe the dog learned this behavior from his owner.) As a good host, of course you want your guests to feel welcome in your home, but I’m guessing a small part of your discomfort stems from a fear that your guests will think you somehow inspired this behavior.

Your friends know you, and I bet they know this isn’t your fault, even though it’s annoying as hell. I’d stick with the treats, since a few dog trainers online seem to think that may help. I’d also make a habit of picking your dog up before you open the door and greeting guests with him in your arms. When we first got our dog, I heard this was the way to go and it’s worked for us. (The humping happens when I have my hands full and can’t pick him up.) He likely won’t bark in your arms and he’ll understand that you’re telling him these guests are welcome.

If you continue to have trouble, you may want to explore some techniques for establishing yourself as the alpha, the leader of his pack. Once he knows you’re truly in charge, he should leave all of your guests alone, regardless of their differences. (At least that’s what the dog experts of the internet tell me.) And if it turns out he just can’t be taught new tricks, put him behind a closed door with a few favorite toys and some food when you have guests. And don’t let him watch Fox News, just in case.

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