Naming and claiming the future of your children

August 4th, 2014

Even though he’s only three years old, nearly every day and every night, I tell my son, “Buddy, I want you to grow up to be a good man.” At different times and for different reasons I define what this looks like, “Buddy, a good man cares about people who are smaller/weaker/less fortunate than he is.”

I do this because I believe the words I use with my children are not lifeless descriptors of how things are. I believe words actually create possible worlds. There is sacramental potential in the words I use. Words are performative — they enact and create the world I want to exist.

I want my son to be a good man, so I tell him I want him to be a good man — I tell him what good means. I define, redefine, and repeat frequently so he knows what this looks like.

He will be a good man one day.

The same goes for my daughters. Yes, I tell my daughters that they are beautiful and pretty (better me than someone else, no?). But I tell them more than that. I don’t want the only world available to them be a world where their physical beauty is the only defining factor of their life.

So I tell them they’re smart, intelligent, funny, insightful, brave, or creative. I tell them I see improvement in their art. I tell them I’m impressed with how they handled a sticky situation with other children. I tell them I want them to grow up to be good women. And then I tell them what this looks like — speaking up for others less fortunate, compassionate, passionate about justice, and many other things.

In these words I create for them a world where they are so confident in who God created them to be that they need not define themselves by lesser words/worlds – words/worlds that dehumanize, subjugate, or sexualize women. I’m creating a world with my words wherein they find their value in their God-given talents/gifts, not in some man.

I lament how so few children have people intentionally shaping their worlds for the better by using good words. I know of children who are continually told they are “brats,” and I can’t help but think that somehow these children will fulfill the expectations of the world created by that word. Children’s worlds are created by the words we use to define them. When the only script they’re given is a script full of degrading words, the have few other options except to play into a role defined by those words.

Words create worlds.* We must learn to wield words well, especially when it comes to our children.

There is a certain “name-it-and-claim-it” assumption behind my thoughts here. Naming is not a neutral act; the use of language is rarely, if ever, neutral or merely descriptive. Naming shapes the world, it shapes the narratives wherein we live, it shapes how we view life. To name our child “a good man” or “brave” shapes a very different world for our children than “brat.”

All throughout the Bible a person’s name is more than just a neutral moniker differentiating them from other persons. Names forged destinies. Jacob, the “heel grasper,” fulfilled his name’s meaning by twice robbing his brother. And while he was never perfect, after his wrestling match with God, when God changed his name to Israel, he looked a little more like a “prince of God” than he did before.

In Romans 9, quoting Hosea, Paul tells the Roman Christians that God now calls those who “were not my people” by a new name, “my people.” The shift in name/calling opens up a world of possibility – a world where unity and faith and relationship with God and creation is now possible.

Words create worlds. We must wield them well. This is more than just being positive and encouraging (though these elements are involved); this is grounded in the theological assertion that the God who created the world did so with benevolent and powerful words. This is grounded in the assertion that the God who gave names to each piece of creation also gave those pieces of creation their function – the name and the function go hand-in-hand.

When my wife and I had our two daughters, we named them according to the world we wanted to create for them. Phoebe and Junia are two strong female leaders in the Book of Romans. Phoebe is a deaconess — most probably the one who carried Paul’s letter to the Roman church and read it aloud to them. And Junia is “great among the apostles” – a phrase which positions her as an apostle. We gave them these names, not merely as monikers that sound cool and biblical, as a way of directing their futures – creating a world whereby they would see that the church is a place where women can lead and thrive.

Words create worlds. Words are performative — they enact the world you speak. When you say, “let it be,” often a world responds, “and it was so.” The only question is whether or not the end of your words will be, “And God saw that it was good.”

Your Turn: What kinds of worlds are you creating for the people around you – including, but not limited to, your children?

*I thought I created this saying. However, when I Googled it, some others apparently have said it first. Oh well… I guess there is nothing new under the sun.

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