Unlike a number of friends and colleagues, I was fortunate enough to receive my own unique first and middle names. While my mother hardly went out on a creative limb with a first name like “Brian” or a middle name like “Lee,” she at least managed to avoid something that has long plagued our family: children named after parents and other family members. Although I thought this old school custom would have fallen by the wayside near the end of the 20th century, new parents continue to name children after themselves, grandparents, and other family members. The frequent failure to question this practice concerns me, as it proves how many people blindly follow social convention without considering its consequences.
Allow me to present a list of reasons why children should not be named after parents or other family members.
1. We already pass along family names to our children, albeit that is usually done in a patriarchal way, with a father’s surname typically used for the children he has sired (not to mention for his wife, who often assumes his name through marriage). The linkage of children to parents through a surname ought to be sufficient.
2. Contrary to popular belief, I would like to suggest that the mere repetition of a name does not necessarily honor a parent, grandparent, or any other family member. The real way to ensure that someone special lives on in memory is to build bonds, share stories, and capture family history in meaningful ways. Take pictures. Record oral histories. Keep some symbolic belongings. Do something other than name children after parents or other family members.
3. Consider the feminist perspective. The vast majority of children who are named after a parent or other family member are male. Of course, plenty of people also recycle female names for their female children or even adapt a male name to become female (John becomes Johnnette or Chris becomes Chrissy). In the first case – male children named after male relatives – there are residual reverberations of primogeniture present – an implicit acknowledgement that somehow maleness is more important and deserving of preservation than femaleness. That’s why so many men sport a “Jr.” or numeral after their name when comparatively few women do so.
3 (cont.) In the second case – modifying male family member names to fit female children – the practice acquiesces to male superiority by asserting that the masculine name is “standard” and the feminine version is somehow a diminutive of or accommodation of the original. This is proof of the male-dominant paradigm, and shouldn’t we be challenging that? Since social gender roles are still so rigidly defined, we’re not yet at a place where people avoid distinguishing between gender and naming entirelyÃ¢Â?Â¦.but can’t we at least agree that female names needn’t be just “cute” versions of male names? It’s like saying “My daughter isn’t going to be a lawyer; she’s going to be a lawyerette.”
4. I’m not sure I can put this one delicately. Naming children after parents and other family members simply smacks of arrogance. Particularly for parents who name children after themselves (i.e. Charles and Charles, Jr.), the decision reeks of a peculiar overreaching self-importance. As if it’s not enough that children share their parents’ genes, some parents think their kids should bear the same first name! What makes any parent think she or he is that special?
5. Naming a child after parents and other family members sets up unrealistic expectations for the child. This is perhaps the most damaging aspect for offspring. Even though it’s not always explicitly stated, a child whose name is the same as his father’s is essentially expected to be a “chip off the old block” or a “junior” version of the so-called original. In other words, a girl named after her mother might be expected to have the same (or highly similar) characteristics, interests, and abilities as her mother. Because names affect our development and our self-esteem in complex ways, it’s more prudent not to set up these unfair expectations because they activate hard-to-fight mental frames. A same-name child is even more likely to end up disappointed and dejected when he realizes he is not “just like dad” after all. Furthermore, parents and other family members may also experience disappointment based on these naming structures. And if anything, parents should be celebrating their child’s special, individual identity – not regretting the fact that Bob Jr. didn’t turn out like Bob Sr.
6. For those who remain unpersuaded by the more intellectually-geared arguments above, allow me to present an utterly practical reason why children should not be named after parents of other family members: it creates unnecessary confusion. Imagine the phone calls once the child is an adolescent. “Is Timothy there?” “Oh, which one did you want – junior or senior?” Imagine the confusion with mail, important documents, and other identity-specific items. Why not just avoid the hassle and give children names that are not easily confused with other people in the household? So many same-name kids end up trying to coin a unique version of their name anyway. Think of a “James” who goes by “Jamie,” “Jimmy,” or even a middle name just to be different from his father – both for clarification and for assertion of individuality.
7. As a final reason, I would argue that, when children are named after parents and other family members, it demonstrates a total lack of creativity. Anyone who has ever picked up a baby name book or perused a child naming website quickly realizes that there are thousands of first and middle names out there. With this panoply of options, no excuses exist for a same-name kid. Heck, parents can even create unique names on their own. Some research shows that children with more original names tend to be more self-confident and even more creative than other kids.
Caveat #1: For parents who simply feel they must use a family member’s name for their child, it’s far less detrimental to assign it as a middle name than as a first name.
Caveat #2: I am writing this from an American perspective. These arguments may or may not be valid in other cultural contexts with different social values.
Final thought: While it sometimes takes nerve and foresight to break social conventions or defy family traditions, isn’t your child worth it?