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Naming Our Children

By: Lower School Director Elizabeth Zurlinden

February 25, 2017

This year I met a new friend who has challenged my thinking about my responsibility as a mother and educator in the most wonderful ways. He is the doorman at my favorite New York City hotel and his name is Laughter. Born in Africa, Laughter’s mother bestowed on her sweet baby boy a gift for life, his name. Naming a child is a critical rite of passage in his African culture as it is a parent’s declaration of the child’s uniqueness and a symbolic representation of the blessing and virtue wished upon his life. Laughter’s moniker is the perfect ontological expression of his temperament, spirit and gift he bestows on those he daily greets. You should see his huge smile and he does laugh all the time. He is a happy soul!

Laughter’s embodiment of his perfectly chosen name got me thinking. What influence did his parent’s choice of a name have in the development of his personality, his identity? How powerful are words to infuse virtue and potential? As an educator, I know the value of spoken encouragement and intentional word choice to gift a child with wind for her sails, direction at a crossroad and cornerstones of self-esteem. So what are the words of character we wish to name our children?

At Rossman School, we name our children by the core values we teach: kindness, honesty, respect and responsibility. Through academic lessons, links to literature, service projects, Family Gatherings, student leadership, and simply our daily interactions with students, the Rossman faculty expose evidence of character growth in all students every day. Naming moments when character is revealed names the child.

  • “You have been working hard to complete your research assignment.” Responsible.
  • “Thank you for sharing your ruler in math.” Kind.
  • “I appreciate you telling me the truth.” Honest.
  • “I’m proud of how you listened while your friends were sharing their thoughts about the book.” Respect.

“As our children grow we don’t stop naming them … we name them by the words we use to call out their good character and their flaws. Every time we tell our kids that they are kind and they are hard workers, we are naming them,” says blog author Amy Koons. “Praising a child’s good character when it is demonstrated is essential in helping her become a young adult who habitually shows good character.”

Words we use can inspire our children to stand taller, consider others first and work with excellence. They are deposits made today to deepen the roots of character, so when tested, genuine kindness, honesty, respect and responsibility will be revealed in their decisions. Teachers and parents are architects and our tools are words that encourage and edify. And as the word edify comes from the root word edifice which means building, so our words have the power to build children up. When we use “building words” such as kind or responsible, children see themselves as kind and responsible; in turn, they act kind and responsible. Words spoken spark action.

In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Dr. Andrew Newburg and Mark Robert Waldman state, ”By holding a positive and optimistic word in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action.”

This is the challenge offered me by my friend Laughter and the wisdom exhibited by one of my favorite literary characters, Charlotte in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. As the savvy spider, Charlotte, weaves positive words into her web to save the life of her pig friend, Wilbur, he grows to become what is spoken of him.

“Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When Charlotte’s web had said SOME PIG, Wilbur tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”

Science and a clever spider prove what we know to be true, what we say to a child significantly influences what he thinks of himself and how he acts. And if words can impact our children’s thoughts about themselves, my most pressing question as an educator and mother is, “What are the words I choose to speak?” Our homes and school are where we mold character by what we speak and how we act towards each other. May our lives speak boldly: kindness, honesty, respect, and responsibility.

P.S. I see Laughter regularly when I visit my daughter at college. I shared that I wrote about him and he simply laughed.


A Fun Family Activity: The Power of Words

Trace your child’s body on a large piece of butcher paper and hang the silhouette on his/her bedroom door. Every day for one week have each person in the family write one positive word that describes the child. Have the child read the words written and share how they feel. 


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