Rich Kids in Trouble

The paradox of modern privilege. By Suniya Luthar, Ph.D.

What’s in a Name?

Contemporary versus historical naming conventions

In my class this semester I have a Holli, an Aleece, Katelyn, Janaea, Kerington, Raiven, Mace, Kierra, Jera, and Kamron. Roughly ten percent of the class (higher in previous semesters) has been given a unique name not found in the Bible, not shared with a beloved kinsman and, not listed in Who’s Who. Actually, these are tame compared to many. The roster of names from our football squad would trump these easily. From experience, I know that trying to spell these names will be difficult for the myriad teachers, clerks and record keepers of all stripes and we’ll often get it wrong with unfortunate consequences for the nominally challenged. Pronouncing them is by no means a walk in the park, either. That’s because a straight-forward phonetic rendering of the written name isn’t always reliable. Ki-er-a is Ker-a, Al-ee-s is Al-is, Jan-A-ah is Jan-a and so on. On the other hand, common names whose spelling has been creatively altered (Qathrin) hints that the parents may be illiterate and can’t spell. There was a time when unusual names were favored only by rock and movie stars (Dwezil, Moon Unit, Elijah Blue) who could afford to erect an anti-bullying shield around their oddly named offspring. No longer.

One wonders why parents would inflict a novel name on a child, given the likely consequences. I have an answer but I’ll beg the reader’s patience as I tell the larger story first.

In my survey of the tremendously varied body of reports on children by anthropologists (1), interesting naming conventions can readily be found. Many such conventions are based on a view of children very different from our own. Infant mortality from illness, malnutrition and infanticide has meant that infants are not treated as fully human, or, aside from essential care, largely ignored. The Ayoreo explain that should the child die, the loss will not be so deeply felt (2). Aka infants are not considered to be complete humans and in fact are thought to be wandering in a very vulnerable existence somewhere between life and death. Aka do not name a child for as long as half a year after birth (3). A Roman child wasn’t accepted as a member of the family for 8-9 days after birth, when, in the lustratio rite, it was named(4). Infants may be seen as having one foot in the spirit world and one in the material. Hence the conferral of personhood—including a “real” name—is often delayed.

For the Beng people of the Ivory Coast, babies are ancestors who’ve been reincarnated and returned from wrugbe, the land of the dead. Consequently, Beng adults not only treat infants with great respect and devotion, they talk to them as well because the child/ancestor can serve as an intermediary with powerful spirit forces. This conception of children also works to cushion the shock of infant death (5). In Indonesia, the Balinese hold similar beliefs. Spirits of ancestors return to inhabit the infant in the womb. Following birth, the baby is believed to be divine for a period of 210 days. This recycling of persons who’ve passed on is quite common, practiced by the Eskimo, for example (6). Among the Yoruba, children “are watched for the unfolding of resemblances to the ancestors they reincarnate” (7). Note that there is no expectation that the child is born with its own, unique “self.” Rather, the child is invested with someone else’s name as well as their identity.

Recycling of an identity via naming can take many forms. In India the first-born male is named after the paternal grandfather, the second after the distaff counterpart and so on back through the family tree. The same thing was true for 19th century England. European royalty have always recycled names (think Henry the 8th) and, among the working class, a name like Smithson (son of a blacksmith) was typical. In Early America, necronyms were common. A newborn son was often named after an earlier born male who’d died. Hence one finds 2 or even 3 Robert Evans inscribed on family headstones as infant mortality claimed a third of all children. Not surprisingly, the total stock of names remained small.

It seems paradoxical but names may project a profound anonymity rather than a unique identity. Yoruba infant names include: Abidemi – A boy or girl born whilst his/her father is out of town; Ajayi – A boy born with his head facing downwards and; Ige – A boy or girl born feet first, or breech. On Bali every first-born male is named Wayan, Made for the send-born and so on. Imagine being in a classroom where one-fourth of the male students had the same name? Those poor teachers.

Anonymity can be conveyed in a less benign manner. For the Korowa of Papua New Guinea “famine,” “hungry,” and “wanting sago” are popular children’s names, reflecting the fact that a child is in a state of pronounced want, dependent on others for its well-being (8). Among the Yomut of Turkmenistan, when a girl is born, it is common practice to give her a name expressing a wish for a son. Girl’s names such as “Boy Needed” (Oghul Gerek) or “Last Daughter” (Songi Qiz) are common (9).

Anonymity for Puritan children was an inevitable result of the practice of using one’s children as human sandwich boards marketing the parents’ beliefs. A sampling (applicable for boys or girls): Abstinence, Diffidence, Tribulation, Sorry-for-sin, and Hate-evil. Flee-fornication was a name given to illegitimate children to remind them not to fall into the same sin their parents had. This practice lives on as contemporary parents with a religious bent can send little Messiahs out into the world (762 Messiahs were issued Social Security cards in 2012). Someone checked on this in connection with a celebrated legal case in which a judge refused to permit Jaleesa (sic) Martin to name her little missionary “Messiah.” The decision was later over-returned because the judge’s rationale that “there was only one Messiah” violated the Establishment Clause.

Sometimes the use of names to obscure the child’s identity (rather than enhance it) can be for the child’s protection. The Fulani, for example, roll a child in dung or give it a name such as Birigi  (cow turd) to make it less attractive and immune from malicious jealousy (10). Among the Macha Galla of Ethiopia, the mother returns to her natal home to give birth in order to avoid harmful forces unleashed by other women in her husband’s community. Other precautions against malevolent jealousy—common throughout the ethnographic record—include the Galla use of “bad” names, usually those of the Mao or Nuak, the indigenous ethnic groups from whom the Galla took slaves. (11).

Contemporary naming customs among at least a segment of society are designed to insure the child will be somebody from birth, a unique individual—just the opposite of the non-personhood and anonymity that has been characteristic of humankind for millenia. A typical rationale is provided by a future Soccer Mom: “We love the name Amy, but Amy's too common. We want our daughter to stand out in a crowd. We want her to be different. That's why we're naming her Amie." This view can be carried to extremes as, for example, the case of a Swedish couple who gave their child the genderless appellation “Pop.” Their explanation: “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mold from the outset; it’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead (12).”

Pasting a designer rather than generic label on one’s newborn is part of a larger phenomenon in which parents commit to the notion that each child is unique and that this distinctiveness should be nurtured and facilitated. It contrasts with the far-more-common practice of socializing children to “fit-in,” to be respectful and considerate of others. Children are encouraged to act responsibly and to help out through doing chores. Parents of haut couture individualists specifically reject this view as revealed in a vignette recorded by Gross-Loh:

Molly, a seven-year-old, suddenly declared to her friend Lila, “I got tired of playing with you today.” Later Lila’s mother brought it up to Molly’s mother, Eve, who told her that Molly was “just being honest.” Eve saw nothing wrong with Molly’s hurtful words; after all, she was raising her daughter to know that it was important to recognize and express her own feelings (13).

Aside from anecdotes which any of us can conjure at a moment’s notice, a very important and thorough survey of decades of empirical work on national character concludes: “Americans are the most individualistic people in the world” (14)

Another way to think about this phenomenon appears when you consider the “Tiger Mom” model. In that (basically East Asian) view there is one and only one path to success and the Tiger Mom’s job as parent is to persuade, cajole, and punish their child to stay on that path and above all, get ahead of others. In the US, the opposite view holds that each child should follow their own path. There are at least two problems with that approach. It is impractical because there are far more individual pathways that lead to failure in life than to success—100,000 people in prison for every Bill Gates. Second, many, if not most, children following a unique path will encounter serious obstacles which turn their parents into helicopters and snowplows, hovering anxiously and swooping down to clear the obstacles.

For my part, I’m sending a donation to The Institute for Naming Children Humanely (15), a non-profit organization dedicated to achieving a better society through better names for children.

  1. Lancy, David F. (2008/2014) The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.  1st/2nd  editions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Bugos, Peter E., Jr. and McCarthy, Lorraine M. (1984) Ayoreo infanticide: A case study, in Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives. Edited by Glen Hausfater and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, pp. 503–520. New York: Aldine.
  3. Takeuchi, Kiyoshi (2013) Food restriction and social identity of Aka forager adolescents in the Republic of Congo. In Bonnie L. Hewlett (Ed.), Adolescent Identity: Evolutionary, Cultural and Developmental Perspectives. pp 165–185. New York: Routledge.
  4. Rawson, Beryl (1991) Adult–child relationships in Roman society, in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Edited by Beryl Rawson, pp. 7–30. Canberra, Australia: Clarendon Press.
  5. Gottleib, Alma (2000) Luring your child into this life: A Beng path for infant care, in A World of Babies. Edited by Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, pp. 55–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Sprott, Julie W. (2002) Raising Young Children in an Alaskan Iñupiaq Village: The Family, Cultural and Village Environment of Rearing. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.
  7. Zeitlin, Marian (1996) My child is my crown: Yoruba parental theories and practices in early childhood, in Parents’ Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences. Edited by Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super, pp. 407–427. New York: Guilford Press.
  8. Stasch, Rupert (2009) Society of Others: Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  9. Irons, William (2000) Why do the Yomut raise more sons than daughters?, in Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective. Edited by Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons, pp. 223–236. New York: Aldine.
  10. Riesman, Paul (1992) First Find Your Child a Good Mother. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  11. Batels, Lambert (1969) Birth customs and birth songs of the Macha Galla. Ethnology, 8(4): 406–422.
  12. Anonymous (2009) Swedish parents keep two–year–old’s gender secret. The Local: Sweden’s News in English. June 23rd  www.thelocal.se/20232/20090623/
  13. Gross-Loh, Christine (2013) Parenting without Borders. New York: Avery. (quote p. 216)
  14. Henrich, Joseph, Heine, Stephen J., and Norenzayan, Ara (2010) The Weirdest People In The World? Behavioural And Brain Sciences 33: 61–81. (quote p. 76)
  15. http://inch.stormpages.com/

Rich Kids in Trouble