My sister grew up in China and recently communicated with me the following memory: My name means ‘grass’. I got this name was because our grandmother said I was a girl and was worthless like grass when I was born. So you can see what kind of childhood I had. Our oldest sister got all of attention and praise from the relatives all the time and I was nothing. Grandma was good to me; however, she was too busy to take care of my feelings at that time. I was very lonely and hated the world because I felt it was so unfair.
Since I was adopted and grew up in a different household, it broke my heart to learn as an adult about this situation that my older sister endured. And you can clearly hear the pain she still feels today – the childhood years are so formative that the negative effects are pervasive throughout life, in all cultures.
The damage inflicted by the assignment of a lowly name is huge, in a culture where names are critical in importance; in America it’s not individual names as much as it is labels that can be so harmful. I suggested to my sister that if at the time the concept could have been reframed to something positive, the damage might have been avoided. Grass can be thought of as lush, growing, and an indication of fertility, with green a color that the brain is drawn to because of the nature connection. But she was having none of it – too little, much too late; the damage was done long ago and isn’t going to ever be undone.
Another fact is that at one time there were so many Chinese children that parents gave their children unpretentious names, like ‘grass’, so that the gods would take no notice of them, and they could lead their lives unbothered by godly wrath for boastful qualities. The only problem with this practice is that the name describes the lowliness repeatedly throughout her life, which internalizes the quality and makes it become real. Not good for developing self-esteem, which was not a consideration during the naming process.
In America we don’t look at someone’s name and immediately know the derivative meaning – ‘Denise’ means ‘follower of Dionysus, the god of wine’ yet I have never been accused of being a wino! But a label, especially a negative label, like ‘chub’ or ‘pest’ (see 5/24/13 post) is hard to reframe into something positive, and can have a negative long-term self-fulfilling effect. Name calling, like ‘stupid’, ‘loser’, ‘brat’, and the like, is similar in damage potential.
COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY: Studies have shown that there are certain names do give the bearer an advantage or disadvantage, but names for the most part are not a hindrance to a growing child. What are important to avoid are labels. Are your children labelled as the ‘smart’ one, the ‘athlete’ in the family, the ‘artist’, etc? Be careful of the pressure that labels bring; even positive labels can be problematic as children struggle under the weight of living up to high expectations.