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Why the Choice of Your Child's Name Matters So Much

Naming a child is the first and most far-reaching act of parenting.

and one/Shutterstock
Source: and one/Shutterstock

Bestowing a name upon a child is one of the first acts of parenting and it is also one of the most far-reaching. I have no doubt that most parents agonize over this obligation and take it quite seriously. However, when you see the whimsical names sometimes chosen for children because of a fleeting parental infatuation with a celebrity or because it sounds like fun to have a new baby with a splashy moniker, it seems as if parents occasionally lose sight of the fact that a name is something that a person must contend with throughout an entire lifetime.

Common Names Are More Advantageous Than Unusual Names

It has long been known that grade-school children with highly unusual names or names with negative associations tend to be less popular than kids with more desirable names, and later in life unattractive or unpopular names lead to more rejection by potential romantic partners in online dating sites.

This is probably related in some way to the fact that people tend to be more strongly attracted to others whose names are similar to their own. Since by definition most people have common names (e.g., 95% of the American population carry just 1% of the first names that are available), odds are that we will be drawn to others who also have common first names.

We even behave more altruistically toward strangers with whom we share a name than we do with strangers having dissimilar names!

Internationally, popular names are less common in frontier areas where there is a premium placed on independence and where social mobility is more easily achieved. Uncommon names are also more likely to be given to babies born during economic recessions, possibly as a way of embracing uniqueness as a strategy for helping the child stand out from his or her peers during fiercely competitive times.

However, given some of the findings discussed earlier, this strategy may very well backfire.

Unfortunately, names can trigger implicit biases against disadvantaged minority groups. For example, a study of 130 elementary school teachers revealed lower expectations for the behavior of children with African-American-sounding names compared to children with Caucasian-sounding-names, and African-American kids with the most unique names are the ones most likely to be socially and academically discriminated against. Along these same lines, an African-American-sounding name on a resume can lead to as many as 50% fewer callbacks from help-wanted ads.

One’s name can be linked to one’s fate in life in other peculiar ways. For example, Germans with noble-sounding surnames such as Kaiser, König, or Fürst (i.e., emperor, king, and prince, respectively) as opposed to more mundane names such as Koch, Bauer, or Becker (cook, farmer, baker) are more likely to rise to management positions in German companies.

Naming and the Management of Self-Identity and Group Identity

Unsurprisingly, names can play an important role in maintaining and advertising one’s self-identity, as illustrated by the recent trend of transgender individuals renaming themselves in order to accurately reflect their gender identity.

By way of a quite different example from the 17th- and 18th-century Southeastern United States, consider the escaped slaves who frequently sought refuge in Native American Seminole communities. Over time, these “Black Seminoles” became fully integrated into their new communities, but they maintained the African naming traditions that had been inherited from their West African ancestors.

The common American practice of using “Old Country” names for children, as when Irish-Americans favor names such as “Sean” or “Bridget,” and the Jewish naming tradition of linking a secular name either phonetically or meaningfully with a Hebrew name, can be thought of as efforts to maintain a link, no matter how tenuous, to one’s ethnic heritage.

The Importance of "Namesaking"

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One of the most durable ways in which names have been used to mold identity and to advertise kinship and group membership is naming a child after a parent or other relative—usually referred to as “namesaking.” It has been suggested that the desire to have children may be an attempt to symbolically extend one’s own life into the future, and there is evidence that people who are forced to think about their own mortality not only express a stronger desire for children but are also more likely to express a desire to name future offspring after themselves.

A few things that we know about namesaking are that boys are namesaked more often than girls and that patrilineal namesaking (naming kids after someone on the father’s side of the family) is more common than matrilineal namesaking (naming kids after the mother’s side), especially for boys. Middle names are the most frequent method of namesaking, and first-born males are the children who are most likely to be namesaked. Curiously, adopted children are more likely to be namesaked than non-adopted kids.

In a study of namesaking patterns in 322 American families, I discovered that birth order appears to be an important variable in the namesaking of boys, but that it is virtually irrelevant for girls. Specifically, first-born males are significantly more likely to be namesaked than second-born males, who in turn are more likely to be namesaked than later-born males. In this study, there was no effect of birth order on the naming of female children. (It should be noted that a later study with a much smaller sample failed to replicate this effect.) My study also discovered a tendency for second-born children to be namesaked more frequently (58.6% of the time) if the first-born child had been a girl rather than a boy (namesaked 44.4% of the time).

Parents who are namesakes themselves are more likely to namesake their own children and namesaked children like their names about as much as non-namesaked children like theirs.

Sometimes, parents namesake their children without consciously being aware that they are doing so. This can happen when something called “semihomonymous” namesaking occurs. In semihomonymous namesaking, a child is given a name that resembles the parent’s name without being identical to it, as when the names both start with the same first letter or contain the same number of syllables. While some parents are undoubtedly aware of what they are doing when they invoke this style of namesaking, many reported that they chose their child’s name simply because it “just sounded right."

Children who are namesaked appear to acquire more advantages than disadvantages from the arrangement, but there can be situations in which boys named after their fathers and explicitly carry the suffix “Jr” are more vulnerable to abuse or psychiatric problems, possibly because of unrealistically high expectations for the son on the part of the father. Nevertheless, naming children after the father does indeed seem to be an effective strategy for strengthening the bond between fathers and their kids.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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