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Our nicknames for our children can have a bigger impact than we think

Updated: March 22, 2013 10:25AM

There was “Horsehead” — “Horse” for short. And “Blue Moon.”

“J-Rat” and “Huckey.” A girl some of the boys teasingly called, “Wiggity-Wigs.” An older dude we all called “Cookie.”

There was the big fat kid we called “Meat.” There was “Pokey.” “Pig.” And “Oink-Oink.”

Such were the nicknames of boys — and girls — that grew up in my ’hood, where a kid’s street handle back then was sometimes the only name you knew.

Some names were crueler than others. There was Crypto (a hybrid of “Cripple”), so named because he walked with a limp. Someone must have figured Horsehead bore some resemblance to the four-legged animal, so they mercilessly designated that henceforth and forevermore he should be called “Horse.” That name followed him to adulthood and a life filled with more misfortune than any of us might ever have imagined.

As common as nicknames were, some kids never had them. Or at least they didn’t stick.

As a baby, my grandmother called me “Jerry.” She later explained, “I thought, ‘John’ was just too big a name for a baby.” In the same spirit, some family called me “John-John.”

Some nicknames seemed harmless. But even back then I understood those names usually stemmed from some physical trait deemed unusual or different from others. And that could make a kid subject to the teasing of other kids who could be cruel, especially when playing the dozens.

Except I came to realize that kids are no crueler than some adults who saddled their children and grandchildren with demeaning nicknames to carry like a scarlet letter from here to eternity — slowly calcifying as part of their identity.

Today some real names are worse than those back-in-the-day nicknames ever were. (But that’s a column for another day.)

“Spot.” “Spook.” “Blue.” “Stinker.” “Baldy.” “Evil.”

So-called for the dark pigment of their black skin; for the way he smelled as a child; or over the fact that as a kid he had no hair; or because he was born so-called evil.

And yet, for every nickname that stuck, I have heard other names — stupid, dumb, bastard, some not printable in a family newspaper but hurled at children by adults — even by their own parents — that can be lethal to a child’s psyche.

I cannot shake from my mind, the image, in recent years, of a mother snatching a little boy’s arm in the street and firing obscenities at him. Or the mother at Chuck E. Cheese’s, hovering over her young boy after hemming him up in a corner and calling him everything, except a child of God. Or the emergence of new nicknames for toddlers: “Lil’ Pimp,” “Lil G,” “Mama . . . ”

But I digress. The point is: What we call our children matters. It matters as much as what we name them. It teaches our children the name they should answer to.

I cannot help but wonder if, from boyhood to adolescence to adulthood, I was the guy known as Horse, Spot, stupid, dumb, or bastard, how differently that might have shaped my life.

When my first son was born, my mother assured me that certain relatives would give him a nickname, and that whatever it turned out to be, I should insist they call him by his real name. Sure enough, as a round little baby with chubby cheeks, one did emerge: “Rerun.” Seriously . . .

I calmly insisted they call him by his name, John. Not everyone complied. But as his father, I, and most in our world, did. And 35 years later, his name — meaning, “God is gracious” — is exactly what he answers to.

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