The right to self-determination.

TulipTreeElm House Blog, tuliptree3 Comments

by Mage

While young children are in the process of developing their sense of autonomy, including aspects of identity such as race and gender(s), some of them will change their names. For some children, name changing is an experiment and a child might change their name every few weeks, or even every few hours… For other children, name changing is a significant step in a process of defining oneself in various ways. One of the ways that name changing might be significant for a young child is that it could relate to the child’s emerging sense of gender identity and expression.

Often, the names that children choose will be something that might feel silly for us to say as adults–“Shrek,” or “Dragon,” or “Princess.” Children can be so changeable, so it might be easy for us to tell ourselves that we don’t have to respect the name that a child has chosen for themself. Because (we might tell ourselves), our life experience as adults gives us insight into their feelings as children, and since we might think of this as “just a phase,” we’d be inclined to think it’s cute, and immature, and to ignore them.

Was there ever a time in your young life when you connected with something–such as a book, a name, a love interest, an idea, or even a group of friends–and had to defend your feelings from adults who said you were going through a phase? How did you feel when adults told you that you were going through a phase, or worse, completely ignored you and your requests?

It is my personal belief that everything in life is a phase, and in the most literal sense, so is life itself. I believe that the present moment is important, because all we truly have is time, ourselves and each other. So, I see it as my responsibility to believe people when they tell me who they are, right now, even if they change their minds later, or become someone else later.

And what if a child changes their name, and changes it again—and the name itself changes, but the process is representative of an underlying pattern in that child’s life? What if a name change is not about the name, but the child’s gender identity? When would you decide to believe the child? Two weeks? Two years? Twenty years? Never?

Earlier this week, one of the children at Elm House who uses a chosen name in addition to the name she was given, approached me in the backyard after morning snack. (Her name is abbreviated to ZPrincess here, for privacy)

ZPrincess: Maaaage! Mage!

Mage: Oh hey! What’s up, ZPrincess?

ZPrincess: Mage, J keeps forgetting my name! And forgetting it! All morning, forgetting it.

Mage: Aah, I see. She can’t remember your name? 

ZPrincess: Yes! And (big sigh) I have to tell her my name is ZPrincess, and tell her, and tell her, and tell her again my name is ZPrincess all morning.

Mage: You have to remind her so much, that sounds so frustrating! Sometimes people forget my name, too, and I have to remind them a lot. I don’t like it at all!

ZPrincess: YEAH, I KNOW!!

The conversation with ZPrincess about the frustration and sadness of having to correct someone about your chosen name, repeatedly, really resonated with me on a personal level. I am a non-binary trans man, and my parents gave me a different name from the one I use now, which is my chosen name. When I changed my name, I used it for four years before going to court and signing a legal document to make it legitimate in the eyes of the law. During that time, I had to correct many people. Friends, family, and especially anyone who would interact with the name my parents gave me (professors, doctors, the DMV, literally any place where my ID or even my debit card was used). For someone who has never experienced this, it might sound more like a minor annoyance than a distressing obstacle. What I experienced was psychologically stressful. I experienced depression and social phobia, I had a lot of self-doubt, and often felt invisible, unimportant, and even unreal.

When someone calls a trans person by their birth name, rather than their chosen one (if they have made a new name part of their personal journey), this is called dead naming. Dead naming can be intentional or unintentional. In addition to causing mental distress, dead naming can also expose trans people to serious consequences, such as discrimination, harassment, job loss… Here is an article that can explain more about what dead naming is, and some of the consequences of it.

So, hearing a child tell me about her experiences of frustration at having to correct other people around her all day long, resonated with me because I have experienced it myself. For years and years and years.

I think that, even if you haven’t experienced dead naming, you might be able to relate to the feelings of sadness and frustration that come with being told that your ideas about who you are and how you express yourself are not worth respecting.

I bring this up because I know that you care deeply about your children, that you honor them, and that you want the world to honor and respect them, too. You want your child to feel loved and loveable. This culture that we live in is patriarchal, and whether we like it or not, we have all inherited trauma and abusive dynamics from our ancestors. Some of this comes out in the form of a cycle of abuse, which may be so seamlessly enfolded into our subconsciousness that we would easily overlook the patterns that we pass on to our own children. Adults have power over children, absolute power, and so our choices, words, and actions affect their lives both in the present and in the long development of their lives. It is not just parents, but all adults within this culture, who have learned to disregard the right to self-determination of all children.

Unlearning these beliefs and biases takes serious effort and dedication. It requires facing oneself with complete honesty, and asking questions that may be hard, or sad, to answer. I am always asking myself if I treat children with the respect that I wish I’d been shown when I was a child. I’m afraid that the truth is, I still have a lot of personal work to do, and it is not easy or fun. Facing up to my own biases is deeply humbling. I believe that by doing the personal work, and hopefully becoming better at honoring the autonomy of children, I will contribute to the development of a better culture, which those children will carry on with them to adulthood, and pass on to the children in their lives. Maybe it’s a grandiose belief, maybe not. Either way, if even one child feels that they were seen and valued, the work is worth it. Because people are what matter in life, and people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.


3 Comments on “The right to self-determination.”

  1. Wow. I’m sitting here awash with emotion after reading this. When I moved away from my familial home I chose a new name for myself. I am not transgendered, but I felt a needed a way to mark the transition from living in a very conservative environment to living in one where I was free to be myself. A name change was part of that.
    I find it INCREDIBLY upsetting when people MAKE THE CHOICE to use my birth name.
    Because that’s what it is, it’s a choice.
    It is a choice that invalidates me.
    It is a choice that says, “I know what you want, but it isnt IMPORTANT to me.”
    It is a choice that says, “What is easiest for me is more important than what makes you feel comfortable.”
    It is a choice that says, “You aren’t worth the slightest bit of effort from me.”
    It is a choice that says, “I don’t respect how you experience yourself and your life.”

    When I lay those sentiments out this is what I have:

    1. I know what you want but it isn’t important to me.

    2. What is easiest for me is more important than what makes you feel comfortable.

    3. You aren’t worth the slightest bit of effort from me.

    4. I don’t respect how you experience yourself and your life.

    Now when I think about being a child, and those sentiments coming from the adults in my life….that feels scary and sad to me.

    It feels like no one is listening.
    It feels like I’m incredibly alone.
    It feels like I don’t know who to ask for help if I need it.
    It feels like I have to respect everyone else’s rules, but no one has to respect mine.
    It feels like I’m worthless.
    It feels like I should keep things to myself because other people won’t listen to/believe me.

    I would never want a child in my care to feel that way. I think honoring children’s chosen names is a very easy way to show them we respect them as full human beings. It requires almost no effort on our part, other than remembering. In my experience children are also incredibly gracious and forgiving. If we dead name them, but immediately respond with, “I’m so sorry! That was the wrong name! You’re ####. I know that!” they are usually more than willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. Children are just like the rest of us (weird!) all they want is to be seen, to be heard, and to be loved. Occasional ice cream is a bonus.

    I’m glad that ZPrincess recognized you as an ally and knew they had a safe place to vent with you. Having a trusted adult around to process that experience/frustration with must be very validating for them. ♥️♥️♥️

  2. Mage, this information is a game changer, an eye-opener and a truly important piece of literature for parents and teachers. Thank you for educating us in hopes of making the world a better place for children everywhere!

  3. Thank you Mage!!! Thank you thank you for your thoughtful writing and honesty and, most importantly, your deep care of our children. I know F is learning so much in ways that will resonate through her lifetime from having you as her teacher, and from the antibias community that you are all fostering. And thanks also to Bee for sharing your story!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *