Friday, September 06, 2019

Calling Them By Their Chosen Names

Artwork by: Tether/Jason DeCruz

The girls had never met before the day they met on the swings. They struck up a conversation and within the hour they were hugging one another, giggling, and tossing around the phrase "best friends." One of them called out to me, "Teacher Tom, my name tag says I'm Monica, but my real name is Anna!" Her best friend added, "My name is Anna too!" So, going forward, that's what I called them both: Anna. Later, they told me that they were, in fact, twins, so that's what I called them: Twin Annas.

At any given moment, I'm calling someone Superman or Elsa or Kai (the Red Ninja) despite having previously known them by another name. Usually, it turns out to be a temporary moniker, one that children are trying on, like a costume, and having others refer to you by your chosen name is part of figuring out how it feels to be someone new or different. We tend to think of it as cute when children "pretend" in this way, but it is part of the most important work any of us will ever do: the project of discovering the truth about who we are.

When children assume new names they are exploring themselves from a new perspective, one not constrained by the limits that are placed upon them by the labels that have been imposed upon them by the outside world. When you are Superman, for instance, you are decidedly not a "little boy." When you are Anna you are no longer Monica. When you are the Red Ninja or Elsa you are strong, you are powerful, traits that young children don't often have in their day-to-day lives. What if I'm not who everyone tells me I am? What if they're wrong?

Most adults, most of the time, accept this type of childhood experimenting, understanding it as normal . . . up to a point. We put the kibosh on dramatic play that we view as too violent, for instance. Or we forbid the use of cosmetics. Many of us are uncomfortable when our children play around with our narrow concepts of gender. We fret and worry when they move on from fictional characters and begin to imitate the dress, language or behavior of older children who we would prefer they not look up to as role models. And then there is the "bad influence" of pop stars and professional athletes and reality TV stars. It's hard for us to allow our children their experiments, especially as we contemplate their futures. What if this isn't just a phase? What if they discover that this is who they are?

It might not be a phase. They might discover that this really is who they are.

The temptation is to place "not in my house" restrictions on them, but they will not always be in our house. They will one day move out where they will, as we all did, continue the vital work of figuring out who they are, and it's not in their job description to make us comfortable. We each must find our own path, even if it's the one less travelled. It's not easy, but as parents, we best support our children at whatever age by listening, offering our advice and opinions calmly and non-judgmentally, calling them by their chosen names, and by assuring them that our love is forever. The rest is up to them.

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