Sooner or later, parenthood brings appreciation of what we’ve learned to call the “values clarification opportunity.” It follows a somewhat standard script: You will explain your carefully-thought-out rules to your child. You will explain why things are the way they are — and why they have to be that way. You will nod smugly at the end of the explanation and your child will nod to show that they have understood it.
And then they’ll make a liar out of you.
I guess it was about eleven years ago, early one Sunday morning when our then five-year-old son stomped sullenly down the stairs and confronted us from across the breakfast table. The cadence and weight of his steps did not bode well; my wife put down her crossword puzzle and I set the comics aside.
“Yes, Jem — what’s up?”
He waited until he had our undivided attention and then, with the instinct of a gifted orator, held on for yet a moment more to let us contemplate the magnitude of the situation he was about to relate.
“Why does she get to be Andy?”
Honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about. I managed a sideways glance at my wife — no, her eyes told me, she was no better off than I was.
“What do you mean, Jem?”
Our son repeated his question, this time adding emphasis to his point of contention: “Why does she get to be Andy?”
Devon got it before I did and whispered across the table: “It’s the name thing.” Right. We exchanged those rapid nonverbal signals that successful outfielders and married couples tend to develop when coordinating a pop fly or dirty diaper. She demurred — I’d take it.
I’d put a lot of thought into this little speech, and had probably already delivered it a couple of times to his older sister.
“Names are very personal,” I said. “They’re about you. We gave you a name when you were born, but that’s just a starting point.”
It had always struck us as unfair that a name, something so wrapped up with — and in fact, defining — your basic identity, is given to you by a couple of strangers, usually before they’ve even met you for the first time. So when it was time to choose, my wife and I picked names for our children that were not only somewhat literary, but also maximized the permutations available to them.
We had named our son Jeremiah. Not because we wanted to mark him as a baleful prophet of doom, but because in our opinion the name gave him the greatest number of choices in what he really wanted to be called. He could bring the full weight of his moniker to bear when he wished, but when he didn’t, he could be Jeremy, Jer, Jem or even “J” at will, and nobody would bat an eye.
Likewise, our daughter Miranda, three years his senior, could choose between Mira, Randy, Mandy, Mindy or — as she had most recently — “Andy.”
I pointed out that most of my friends called me by my chosen nickname. And if Miranda had decided that — at least for now — she wished to be called by this new one of hers, we would respect that wish. In our family, I said, our belief was that you should be called whatever you wanted to be called.
His eyes flashed with inspiration.
My wife, mercifully close on my wing and alert to of the nimble ways of a boy’s mind, swooped in for the save: “Anything that’s not rude. Or mean.”
He nodded thoughtfully, as if that this precondition measurably narrowed his options.
“But other than that, I can be called anything I want?”
The smile returned to his face slowly, until he was beaming, his eyes fixed on the prize.
“You have something in mind?”
He nodded enthusiastically.
“So what is it, Jem? What do you want to be called?”
And he gave us that pause again, making sure he had our full attention before delivering his confident pronouncement: