What’s In A Name?

July 26, 2011 · 11 comments

in Inspiration, Relationship

Names are an important key to what a society values. Anthropologists recognize naming as ‘one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.’  ~David S. Slawson

Meet jeannezoo of  zella said purple. In her own words, Jeanne is  “an early childhood educator, artist, writer, book collector. committed to constructivist learning environments, documentation and photography as teacher research tools, and joy in the classroom.”  Jeanne recently wrote a beautiful post entitled because it is your name , which inspired me  to write this one.

In her post, Jeanne says,

KNOW that each name is important – the way it is pronounced and the respect it deserves.

The name IS the child that you are inviting, welcoming, and including into the family that is your classroom.

Uplift the names, uplift each child.

This reminded me of a conversation I once had with Magda Gerber about the importance of  calling each child by their name. Magda felt that it was especially important for early childhood professionals (teachers, nannies, pediatricians, etc.) to address even the tiniest babies by their given names, as opposed to calling them by pet, or nicknames. To Magda, it was a question of respect. In our society, it’s still  common for many, even professionals, to address both the very young and the elderly, using nicknames or pet names, which is disrespectful for two reasons;  it both diminishes a person, and  implies an intimacy and a power differential that should not exist.


As a teacher of young children, I’ve often witnessed that sometime around their second year, when toddlers are typically asserting their sense of individuality, they will insist on being called by their names, even by their nearest and dearest. Pet names won’t fly. Just last week, I was at  the park and I overheard an exchange between two siblings. The big sister (maybe five years old) was comforting her little brother who had just taken a minor tumble from the slide. She sweetly offered to help him get up, asked him if he was OK,  gave him a hug (which he returned) , and then she said,  “I’m sorry my wee little sweetie fell and got hurt.”  This seemed to offend and upset the little boy more than the fall had. He straightened up to his full height and indignantly declared: “I NOT wee sweetie, I Zwackery ( Zachery) !”

A favorite quote by Dr. Seuss comes to mind, “A person is a person, no matter how small.”  And, I might add, no matter how young or old, and thus -deserves the respect of being addressed by his or her given name, instead of as “dear” or “sweetie” or “munchkin” or “baby” or “cutie”.

Because after all, our names are unique unto us, and define who are. I have many roles in my life- that of daughter, sister, student, teacher, caregiver, friend, lover, fiance – but I define myself to myself  first and foremost by my name- Lisa.

Words have meaning and names have power.  ~Author Unknown

For the same reason I try to avoid labeling children, or talking about them in their presence without acknowledging or including them in the conversation, I try to call each child I meet by their given name. Over the years, I’ve had the honor of  caring for and teaching many children, and I remember each one of them by name.

Over time, I have also become very aware of how I am thinking about and describing children, both to myself and others. One day, a Mom who was frustrated with her young daughter was describing her as “clumsy, oafish, a little like a bull in a china shop.”  I replied that I didn’t think of her that way at all. I thought of  her as delightfully exuberant. Her Mom got tears in her eyes  as she thanked me, saying, “You always seem to find and see the best in every child.”  ( I try, but I’m not perfect,  and I don’t always get it right.)

But doesn’t  it make a  difference in the way you feel about, and interact with a child  if you use these words to describe his behavior:

“He knows his own mind, and is decisive. He needs my help to understand that sometimes others have different ideas and feelings about things.”

As opposed to using these words:

“He is obstinate and stubborn, and needs to learn that what he wants is not the only thing that matters.”

Father and child writing name in the sand

My favorite story about my name and my professional title?  I’ve always felt there is no good name to describe my current chosen work – babysitter, nanny, caregiver-  none of them feel quite right, or really fit. Magda Gerber came closest to accurately describing the work I do, when she coined the term “educarer” which could apply to either a  parent or a professional- anyone involved in caring  for  a child or children on a day-to-day basis. The term embodies the notion that ” we educate (or teach) as we care, and we care while we educate.”

But in this case, I have to tip my hat to S., who is now almost six years old, and for whom I have been caring since she was just under a year old. When S. was three and a half years old, she started attending a preschool program a few hours a day, in the mornings. When I would arrive to pick her up every day, she’d inevitably be out back playing, and several of her little friends would run to find her, calling out, ” S, your Mom is here.”  S. simply replied, “That’s not my Mom, that’s my Lisa,” which the other children seemed to understand, and accept immediately. And thus, I became known as “S.’s Lisa.”  When S. started Kindergarten last year, she was thrilled to find another of  her classmates had a “Lisa” too.  The best job “review” I ever received? “Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Lisa like you.”

I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts with me about “the meaning of words and the power of names.”

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jeanne July 26, 2011

So profoundly, extraordinarily, beautifully shared.
I am thrilled to have met you, Lisa, and smile when thinking how lucky ‘S’ is to have such a fabulous educarer as her “My Lisa”.
Your generous nod to my post is genuinely appreciated 🙂

Lisa July 30, 2011


Thank you for the inspiration, and your lovely comment. I am happy to have met you too- even if only through the virtual world. Someday, maybe we will meet in person!

Nadine July 26, 2011

Very interesting topic… Of course I have many nicknames for my son. But I do like to call him by his real name quite often (also because I still think it’s a beautiful name). What I also find important is that we give the child a good feeling about their name. I was never called Nadine in my childhood unless I was asked to do something or I was told off or something rather “bad” than good”. I grew up in a village where everybody called me Dini which now sounds nothing like me. When I got older I got so many nicknames that only teachers or strangers would call me by my real name. Now I’m not used to my name and I don’t like to say it when I’m asked for it. When I hear myself being called by my name I always assume it with a task or having done something wrong.
I wish Leander won’t experience the same. There is so much we put into this name and I want him to appreciate it but most importantly identify himself with the name in a good way.

Lisa July 30, 2011


Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment.
You reminded me of another quote I came across when I was researching quotes for this post: “Any child can tell you that the sole purpose of a middle name is so that he can tell when he’s really in trouble.” – Dennis Farkes

It seems from the moment a baby is conceived, parents put so much time, effort, and care into choosing just the right name for a child- some even believe that “names contain hidden vibrations, which are an embedded aspect of a person’s character. The vibrations begin before birth, as the child within the mother’s womb “speaks” to the mother…(http://www.babynamesgarden.com/nameasdestiny.aspx). Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting concept.

Leander is such a beautiful name, and I too wish that your son will grow to identify himself with his name in a positive way. One more thought I had when reading your comment- within the context of the close, intimate relationship among family memebers or lovers, I think that the use of nicknames can be a wonderful way to denote and celebrate the uniqueness of the people in the relationship, and the bond they share, as long as care is used as to when, where, and how, we use these names. What do you think?

Angelique July 27, 2011

Beautiful Lisa…I agree with every word you say, saying a person’s name is a sign of honour and respect. I will share this post on my wall. Thank you and Jeanne .

Lisa July 30, 2011


Thank you for reading, and always responding in such a positive, supportive way. Your name fits you perfectly. I always imagine an angel, when I hear your name…

Angelique July 30, 2011

Thank you so much Lisa. I am an angel, and so are you (ad everybody we meet on our way)!! What a wonderful angel party we are having in these amazing times of conscious parenting.

Gina Osher July 27, 2011

Such a beautiful post, Lisa. And it made me think, as all your posts do. My daughter, Johanna, is often called JoJo, and even refers to herself that way. But I always, always ask her, when meeting someone new, how she would prefer to be addressed. As you point out, a nickname is a sign of closeness and familiarity – it shouldn’t be assumed that because we use a nickname, that she wants everyone to do the same. I love too, your reminder about labeling. Even labels we see as “positive” ones (smart, pretty etc.) can have effects we don’t intend.

The last part of your essay reminded me, too, of a girl at our children’s school who has two dads. One day my daughter was talking to her and made a comment about how she should ask her mom about something. The little girl responded, “I don’t have a mom, but I have an Erika!”. Erika is her wonderful nanny who has become like a mother to her…simply referring to Erika as “my nanny” just couldn’t sum up what this little girl felt about her. As, I would imagine, S. feels toward you.

Beautiful post, Lisa.

Lisa July 30, 2011


I love how you are so sensitive to your little girl’s preference as to whether she would like to be called by her given name or her nickname.I think it’s so respectful, and important to honor a child’s preferences when it comes to what they would like to called, even if, as your girl does, they sometimes call themselves by their nicknames.

S. went through a period when she only wanted to be called by her given name, even though virtually everyone had always called her by her nickname from her birth. In fact, I had been caring for her for almost a year before I even knew that the name I called her by was not the name on her birth certificate.

Thank you so much for sharing the story of the little girl who has an Erika- it just warmed my hear, and made me smile!

Candy Lawrence July 30, 2011

Marvellous post- I love hearing that others have come to the same conclusions as I have!! 😀 I always ask children what they prefer to be called- Thomas or Tom, etc- and I always make sure to spell their names correctly. Over 30 years of teaching this has been a source of wonder to my many students, and I’d like a dollar for every time a child has said to me delightedly ‘You spelled my name right!’.

The issue of what you say about that child, especially over the top of their head, is also one that is close to my heart. When someone says something outrageous about a child in their hearing, I always draw the child into the discussion- to the dismay of the original speaker. It’s a great way to discourage that behaviour!

Elisabeth August 10, 2011

Hello Lisa. I’ve just come across your site and was very interested in this article. We are expecting our 2nd child and are trying to come up with a name for her. As someone who has always hated my own name this is very important to me. Your article made me wonder if I don’t like my name because my family rarely ever used my full name while I was growing up, but rather an ever changing slew of derivatives.

I do have a pet name for our 4 year old daughter but use it only sparingly in private moments. She seems to love her name and often refers to herself by her whole name – first, middle and last. I’m very glad she feels this way and hope we can do as well with our next child.

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