When my husband and I brainstormed names for our first son, we tried to picture him at 5, 15, 25, 45, 65, etc. going through life with this name. What would it feel like for him in a kindergarten classroom? What would it feel like in a boardroom? Our goals were classic, strong, and a little bit fun. We landed on my husband’s middle name, Graham. I struggled for a few months about the name’s meaning, which oddly is “grey house” or “gravel homestead”… huh? But what I didn’t see coming, and maybe should have, was the teasing as a result of our choice.
My son started kindergarten this year, and not two months in, came home saying he was changing his name. He spent a few weeks trying to land on the perfect new name, and finally decided on one of his friend’s names. He demanded we call him this alternative name for weeks. I thought nothing of it. After all, a few months ago he had demanded to be called Hulk Smash for a series of weeks, so how was this any different? Turns out it was a red flag that he didn’t like his name for a reason. Kids had started referring to him as “graham cracker.”
At first I kind of chuckled. Kids will be kids, and so on and so forth. I’d been teased at various times for my short haircut in the ’90s and my husband had been teased on and off as well. It seemed almost like a rite of passage, and though it did seem to be starting quite early, I didn’t really think much of it. Yet, it persisted. My son lashed out at us for naming him Graham, not able to understand as a 5-year-old the time intensive process and level of thought we put into selecting it.
My husband and I, both experienced educators, debated what was everyday harmless teasing and messing around, and what was true bullying. According to bullyingstatistics.org, “If the person you are calling names begins to take offense and demonstrates hurt or asks the person to stop, but the person does not stop, this gets taken to the new level of bullying.” Bullying happens to 1 in 5 students, and 13% of the incidents involve name calling, Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center reports.
We take all kids’ mental health seriously, and started to create strategies to empower our son to handle the situation. We practiced telling the teasing students in a firm, serious voice that the name calling needed to stop. We prepped the bus driver to let her know he’d be trying to handle it on his own, and that if it didn’t work, we’d get adults involved.
Sitting with my kindergartener, practicing how to stand up for himself, and role playing what a “serious voice” sounds like was one of the most invaluable experiences he’s had. We quickly realized we’d never had conversations about asserting yourself, standing up for what you want and need, and shutting down people who were doing things you don’t like. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for this “bullying light” situation, and I was happy to have the opportunity to teach this young, and in a controlled atmosphere.
We realized also that many of the conversations we’d had were about sharing, looking out for others, and making sure his two younger brothers felt included. Very little was about self-preservation and communicating needs in a clear cut way. Kids have a way of letting you know what you haven’t taught them that they still need.
I will never regret naming my son a strong name that has ties to his father, who is a huge part of his life. We had the opportunity to talk to him about standing up for himself, and about how we don’t change things about ourselves just because others don’t like them. After all, when he and his buddies decide in college to rediscover Graham Nash, the British American music superstar, his name will be the envy of the dorm room. If not, he will have lessons on defending himself firmly to naysayers, and carrying his identity confidently through his life.