Hello, my name is…. The importance of giving your child a good name

Is your child lazy? Shy? Aggressive? Or are they creative, thoughtful or determined? Why the words we use to describe our children matter and how we can give them a good name.

What’s in a name? The words we use to describe our children matter. Photo credit: Emily Rose/Tako Fibers. | MSU Extension
What’s in a name? The words we use to describe our children matter. Photo credit: Emily Rose/Tako Fibers. | MSU Extension

One of the biggest milestones in having a baby is selecting the perfect name. Parents recognize a child’s name becomes part of their identity and you only get one shot to pick a good one. As a result, parents often contemplate for months, trying on different names to see which one will suit their little bundle. Cornelius might be too big, Ira too small, but Charlie is just right!

However, a parent’s duty to give their child a good name does not end when it is printed on a birth certificate. The act of giving your child a good name continues throughout their upbringing and these names will be just as important.

In a world full of words, we use language to identify, classify and connect. Words are also used to label, define and compare as we use them to describe ourselves and the people around us. Have you ever stopped to think how the words we use to define others might affect how we treat them or how they feel about themselves? Children, being the little sponges they are, soak up what they hear about themselves. They pick up each and every word we throw out to describe them. What words are you using to define them?

Often times, we use words that have negative emotional associations to describe behavior we do not like in our children, such as being stubborn. Take a minute and think about a child described as stubborn – what comes to mind? Maybe you think of a child that will not leave the toy aisle at the grocery store or simply will not touch their peas at dinner, no matter how much pleading his parents do. But if you take away that prepackaged idea of what stubborn looks like, you remember a child’s behavior can mean and look like many different things. Stubborn can mean persistent, tenacious or determined. The same word could just as easily be used to describe the child who refuses to give into peer pressure to bully someone, or one who refuses to quit even if she is struggling with multiplication tables in school. How quickly our emotional feelings shift when we move from describing a child as determined instead of stubborn.

In addition to using words with emotional associations, we also often use words that are polarized, or feel either negative or positive. For instance, one immediately has an idea of what someone described as “snobby” will be like, just as we do for someone called “sweet.” When we use these polarized words to describe children, we are often giving them a label of absolutes. We are saying rude behavior equals a rude child, 100 percent of the time with no exceptions. As a result, one instance of rude behavior is now taken to represent a child’s entire personality.

Saying that a child should not be described through these negative words does not mean that children never display these negative behaviors or traits. They all do at some point or another and those behaviors should not be considered acceptable. However, it is important to remember that the behavior is negative, not the child. The action is “bad,” not the child.

Criticizing a behavior is different than criticizing a child. When we criticize a behavior, we are showing disapproval for a specific action but when we criticize a child, we are expressing disapproval for being—we show that we don’t approve of whom they are. When we give a child a name like “selfish” for not wanting to share their Halloween candy, we are not describing a selfish act; we are describing a selfish child. When we criticize children for being instead of doing, we are writing a bad name on a nametag that they will carry with them wherever they go.

So, how do we change our negative descriptions to positive ones? Michigan State University Extension has some tips on how to give your children great names!

  • Pay attention. The first step is paying attention. Notice what words you use to describe your child, whether you say them aloud or not. Challenge yourself to make list and think about whether they are good names.
  • Switch them up. Take those negative names and swap them out for positive ones. Point out your child’s strengths, notice their good behavior and give them good names just for being themselves. When your child begins an art project and ends with scraps of paper, scissors, tape and glue strewn about the entire kitchen, do you describe them as messy or as creative and artistic? Is your little one who hides behind you at family gatherings hesitant to socialize called shy or is she merely calm, contemplative or insightful?
  • Let your child pick their own name. Encourage your child to figure out who they are, what personality traits they possess and to come up with good names for themselves.

Words are important. They are powerful. The words that we use, whether privately or publicly, to describe and define our children can and will affect how we view and treat them, as well as how they view and treat themselves. You have the power to give your child a positive, supportive and empowering inner voice. It all starts with a good name.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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