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Respect the Specialness of Names

When relating to children, don’t presume to call them a certain name; instead ask them what they choose to be called. Also, give them a choice of what to call you. To build self-esteem in them, let them name themselves, name you, and describe the relationship between you as they see it. Basically, this concept has to do with inviting a certain amount of control and responsibility in children for how a relationship is to function.

When as a tutor I met a child for the first time, I would often say something like, “I understand your name is Charles. What would you like to be called?” He might choose “Charles”, but he might also choose, “Chuck”, “Charlie”, “Butch”, or some other nickname he preferred. From then on I would address him by the name he requested.

I would tell the children my name was Mrs. Pat Berne and ask them what they wanted to call me. Some seemed more comfortable addressing me as Mrs. Berne throughout our sessions, other began with Mrs. Berne but switched to Pat, still others started calling me Pat from the beginning. I’m not sure that one name or the other could be used to measure a child’s sense of relaxation or relatedness to me. The factor I focused on was that naming me was a choice I gave them. It underscored my concern. It said, “Whatever name would be most comfortable to you will be most comfortable to me – whether we’re talking about your name or mine.”

Children regard their names as a part of who they are. Their own name is very special to them; it has almost a magical quality; it is very much connected with their inner spirit. I can remember teasing one of my little brothers by insisting his name was Frank rather than John. I remember his frustration and outrage when I denied his true name; to him it seemed to be a threat to his very identity.

Absentmindedly, I sometimes call one of my daughters by her sister’s name. It is generally frustrating to them, as if I had not valued their uniqueness enough to look and see or listen to the daughter with whom I was interacting. Such a mistake had an effect on their perception of how I valued or devalued them and what they had to say.

The use of nicknames meant only for family use or nick names conferred by special friends is a gift in a relationship. For someone outside the family or close circle of friendship to use one of these special nicknames without the child’s permission if often viewed as an instruction into a very private space.

The point in all this is that children’s names are a very special part of their identity and strongly influence their self-esteem. Naming is a gift given mutually in a caring relationship. Giving children the privilege of naming you is a gift you may want to offer them in an atmosphere of welcome and esteem for the relationship.

Self-Esteem Principle: Children’s self-esteem grows when they feel a sense of control and respect in how they are known by people they like and admire.

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