What’s in a Name? — Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My sister just had her second child, so we’ve had lots of family get togethers this week. I noticed that among all the visiting relatives, the new baby’s parents and the parents’ friends there were lots of different names and nicknames being used for the baby — as well as for her big brother. I thought about all the names I use to get the attention of my two children — not all of them rosy! Is it confusing for a child to have to answer to so many appellations? And do derogatory terms, used by supposedly loving family members, cause any lasting harm?

You Can Call Me Mom

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Dear Mom,

The line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet goes: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” However, a flower name could hardly be construed as insulting. That cannot be said of “Stink Bottom.”

Derogatory terms, threatening looks, intimidating body postures and sadistic actions indeed bear long-term consequences for children. Any adult who abuses his or her rank as the grown-up in this way needs to take a parenting class.

A child looks to her grown-ups for guidance, for protection and for comfort. The world does not feel like a safe place when one’s grown-up is acting hostilely toward her. That being said, a child readily learns that when Uncle Raymond affectionately says, “Come hear, you rascal!” she’s not in trouble.

Since you’re pondering which are better and which are worse, take some time to choose names of endearment that are clearly positive. And drop those that may sound offensive to a child, if not now, perhaps later. An adult may not mean any harm referring to a child as “turkey” or “brat” or “pipsqueak.” Still, there are certainly many indisputably sweet names to choose from. You can even go Shakespearian if you like.

Whether you call a child by her given name, an abbreviated name, her initials or a pet name used only for her, it’s all in how each name is used. When I was growing up, one’s middle name was added to the first name to signify a parent’s disfavor. I don’t know why this convention was used — by all the parents on the block — but it made me dislike hearing my given names together. As a reaction, I purposefully used my children’s full names only to express pride and pleasure.

The Swedes say, “A well-loved child has many names.” A child can be called different names at different stages, by different people and in different situations without risk to her sense of self. The key here is that the child knows when she has been called that she is loved.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]