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How Do We Name Adopted Children?

Deciding on the name for an adopted child can be quite complicated.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

I have written before about the lifelong impact of the names that we hang on newborn children. From their popularity in elementary school to their popularity on online dating sites as adults, a person’s name has daily consequences. It may even ultimately influence the ease with which he or she can land a job.

As complicated as the naming of children born into their biological families can be, the issue is even more fraught with peril in the case of adopted children.

The biological mother is usually the person who chooses the first name that a child carries, and this means that adoptive parents are probably not just choosing a name, but they are probably changing a name as well. Many newly adopting parents are surprised and a bit disappointed to discover that their new family member does not come to them as a blank slate, and the birth name may carry the baggage of identifying the child with a particular religion, ethnic group, or social class that the new parents are not comfortable with. However, erasing the child’s past with a new name as if the child’s origins are something to be ashamed of is not a decision to be taken lightly.

This is a particularly sensitive issue when the adopted child is older and has grown comfortable with the name received at birth.

On the Naming of Older Adopted Children

Occasionally, there may be security issues surrounding an adoption, such as when a child has been rescued from an abusive or neglectful family situation. In these instances, it may be very much in the child’s best interests to acquire a completely new name that shields him or her from being easily found by abusers from the past.

When security is not really an issue, however, and when the child has reached a certain age, it is essential that the child’s feelings be taken into consideration when the decision about naming is made. Experts report that sometimes “older children may look forward to shedding a name given to them by their birth families due to bad memories or hurt feelings."

But sometimes not.

Parents eager to get off on the right foot with their new child probably do not want to wage a battle over a name that puts a chip on the child’s shoulder from the get-go.

There can be a middle ground. Honoring the child’s past by using a middle name or initials that connect them to the birth family may be a nice compromise. And of course, the new parents can always just opt to keep the child’s original name.

So, when it comes to naming adopted children, there really are no set rules; each case is unique. And although the naming decision may be a bit easier when the adoptee is still an infant, there are still issues.

What Do We Know About Naming Adopted Infants?

Adopted children face a unique challenge in their new families. The adopted newborn is more of a “stranger” to the parents than a biological child since the biological stages of development and the rituals surrounding an impending birth are usually lacking. So, while the biological child is recognized at birth as a full-fledged family member without qualification, it has been reported that mothers of adopted infants do not at first share the same feelings of warmth and maternal closeness reported by biological mothers.

Namesaking a child (i.e., naming a child after a parent or relative) may be one strategy that parents employ to foster the perception that the child is in fact a genetic relative. If namesaking is indeed a strategy to enhance a sense of relatedness, it ought to occur most frequently in situations where this need is strongest—when a child is adopted. Namesaking adopted children may be a means of inducing others to treat them as if they are in fact genetic kin; this, in turn, may reinforce and facilitate the parents’ own parenting behavior. Hence, the naming of adopted children can take on special significance in reassuring both the child and the child’s new relatives that there are no essential differences between the child and his or her extended family.

In 1991, I published a study of 96 adoptive families and 104 nonadoptive families with two of my former students, Jill Johnson and Paul Harris. We demonstrated that adopted children are in fact more likely to be namesaked than children who were not adopted, and that they were more likely to be given both a first name and a middle name in honor of a relative.

We also found that when children who were not adopted were namesaked, they were most likely to be named after a patrilineal relative, usually the father. On the other hand, adopted children were equally likely to be named after patrilineal or matrilineal relatives. We argued that this occurred because adoptive parents were equally sure that the child was not genetically related to them, so pressures to assert kinship were equally strong from the father’s side and the mother’s side of the family. For children who are not adopted, it is only the father’s side of the family that needs reassurance, and so a strong patrilineal namesaking bias kicks in.

More recent studies by other scholars have confirmed the importance of namesaking as a tool for integrating adopted children into their new families and as a way of balancing adopted and birth family heritages. It will be fascinating to watch as researchers explore how adoption and naming practices play out cross-culturally in the years to come.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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