Nicknames are big in my family. Growing up, we all had them. Some of them stuck more than others – one of my sister’s nicknames has stuck so hard that when people call her by her ‘real’ name, I often experience momentary confusion about who they are talking about.
Other nicknames, mainly bestowed by our father, are names only he uses. While most were bearable, some were not (my sister was nicknamed Dingleberry for a while, which was quickly dropped when we told our father what it meant).
There were times during adolescence when the nicknames became hugely embarrassing. But generally, they have been a pleasant source of affection. Similarly, I have multiple nicknames for my own children and most of my close friends and acquaintances.
All are meant as a sign of affection... a special name denoting a special level of intimacy with that person. However, there’s a fine – but important – line between nicknames and name-calling, as I recently found out. When my daughter’s classmates started calling her a jokey, inoffensive name, based on nothing other than the first letter of her name, it sent her into a downwards spiral of insecurity.
The point is not whether her peers were trying to be hurtful – I like to believe they weren’t – but it’s about the fact that she was hurt by it. And here, I think, lies the difference between nicknames and name-calling (which is a form of bullying, according to bullyingstatistics.org).
It’s not about the nickname as such (although sometimes it is – especially if the nickname pokes fun at a person’s physical features, culture, nationality, race, or religion) – it’s more about how it makes the person feel.
When shortly after my daughter’s experience, my son – through tears – said he didn’t want to be called a name his father and sister had dreamt up, I thought back to my daughter’s pain and asked them to respect his wishes.
After all, if he can’t tell his family he doesn’t like a pet name, how will he tell his classmates? I thought it was a good chance for him to learn he has a right to speak out against a nickname, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
Even as adults, how easy is it to ‘fess up to the fact that you don’t like a nickname? And why is it so hard? Is it a power thing? Does admitting it hurts you make you vulnerable?
I called Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and owner of The LightHouse Arabia (www.lighthousearabia.com) and asked for her views. She says, “I don’t think it’s about power, I think it’s about assertiveness. Children and adults struggle with being assertive, but it’s an important skill. If someone comes to your house unexpectedly, or starts calling you a name you don’t like, you should feel confident enough to tell them you don’t like it in a way that isn’t aggressive or abusive. We should be able to say ‘I’d prefer it if you called me Saliha’, with a smile on our face and with a calm, non-aggressive voice.”
This makes sense. It would be seriously anti-social to keep using a nickname when someone has asked you not to. I mean, surely we all have the right to decide what we want to be called?
Not honouring a person’s preference for their own name is simply disrespectful and, as anyone who has ever been called a name they didn’t like will tell you, having that preference overruled, or ignored, feels like a degrading personal violation.
But when adults find this so difficult to manage, how can we expect a child to? Dr Afridi says, “Teach your child how to problem solve and self-soothe in the moment, and how to effectively communicate what they want instead.”
Agreed. Being able to speak up in a calm manner is certainly what is needed, but I can’t help feeling something else is needed – even before the assertiveness can take root. I think it’s self-respect.
Interestingly, while self-esteem and self-confidence are things parents can help cultivate in our children, self-respect, it seems, is something we must teach, and model.
On her website, Jane Bluestein (www.janebluestein.com), an expert in child emotional health, lists 13 ways to model respect to children – one of which is, “Resist calling him nicknames that embarrass him, or names he feels he has outgrown”.
It’s so simple, but so right. What do our children want us to call them? Do we ever ask them? My children may not mind much now, but once adolescence hits, they probably will. And these nicknames will become an embarrassment to them.
When that happens, I hope I have enough respect for their wishes to dismiss my own sentimental nostalgia in honour of their street cred. And I hope by that time I’ve taught them enough self-respect that they feel they can ask me to do so. In the meantime, I’m going to start teaching self-respect the best way I can. Starting with this simple offering – “Do you mind it when I call you Boodleboo?”