Children know the power of names

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Children feel the power of names. I know my daughter likes her babysitter; she began saying the sitter's name almost immediately. Strangely, I gauge her comfort by her willingness to name the people around her.

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It was not always this way; she began calling my friend Tracy "TC" almost before she could move independently. But when she was about 2-and-a-half, around when we moved to Juneau, I noticed she stopped calling people by name.

She developed elaborate descriptions of people, linking the intricacies of their relationships and physical descriptions. There was no doubt she knew people's names. But the only names she would say were ours, her own, her grandparents and her cousins. My parent anxiety rocketed upwards.

If I had viewed my anxiety in a historical perspective, I would have realized many traditions consider naming immensely powerful. When people are naming their children in western society, they glean the most suitable selection for their offspring by practicing bizarre phonetic spellings in parent chatrooms and taking advice from complete strangers. They comb baby name books, launching into etymological investigations of slight variations.

In other cultures, naming follows a simple pattern of birth order. In some Asian cultures, naming a child after a parent or grandparent is an affront to the ancestor, a trivializing of the honored. The birth name in some Native American communities is so sacred it is only used in ceremonial situations; otherwise people use relationships to identify each other. In some communities, children grow into a new name at adulthood, abandoning the names, and I guess the pursuits, of childhood.

Even in our own family, we knew the power of a name; my husband and I both grew into adulthood with our childhood nicknames, and consciously chose a name for our daughter with few natural nicknames.

But it's not just new parents thinking about names. Social justice movements, religious contemplation and political persuasion, among many other disciplines, ponder the power of naming. Genocide or civil war? Anti-abortion or pro-life? We argue about "labeling" kids in education, afraid a name will box child in. And our laptops, e-mail accounts, and My Space pages all demand "names" we create for ourselves, ones we hope summarize something of who we are.

But at the time, the only important facet of naming was the one walking around my living room - my daughter - refusing to call by name anyone but those closest to her.

In my fear of this behavior, I would quiz her: "Did you play with Eliza today? No? How about Alfred? No? How about Elias?" She stoically refused to comply. She continued with her own agenda.

Finally, I resolved to take her to the doctor; a refusal to say the names of others, I was sure, was not a good sign. Something was wrong with his otherwise normal little person following me around the house. I knew something beyond my reach was wrong. Within minutes of my decision, while I still sat on my bed mourning my understanding, my daughter walked into my bedroom and announced "Do you know what Callan and I had for lunch at Norma's today?" I wept with relief.

But did I have a good reason for either relief or the preceding anxiety? Now I think of her as quirky about names, saving their use for a certain level of comfort and intimacy. While I can't say that is necessarily bad, I do know it is a bit unusual, at least in western culture. Maybe she knows something I don't about the power of names. Maybe she uses this selective response to tell me a bit about herself (or about myself). I don't know; I just can't name the issue.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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