I recently overheard a conversation on a Bronx-bound 2 train between an expecting couple. The topic of discussion was what they should name the baby. The father wanted the baby to be named after him, the mother wanted to create a combination name using both of their names. As a single father of a boy and girl, I have had my experiences naming the kids, both good and bad. After weeks of discussions, give and take situations, and finally agreeing on my sons given name, his grandmother named him something completely alien and foreign to our plans. My daughters name we actually flipped a coin for. If she was a boy her mother would name her, if she was a girl I would name her. Guess what, I won that toss. The hard part was actually coming up with a group of names then creating a short list to choose from. I had specific guidelines and prerequisites – nothing Ghetto, nothing hard to spell, classy, yet descriptive of the dual ethnicities she would be comprised of.
I did not want to create a negative externality. A negative externality occurs when an action you take adversely affects an uninvolved person. Parents choose names for their own benefit and their child’s. When parents choose a name they arguably are not thinking about how their choice will affect everyone else in the world. When I found out I was having a son I was glad I was going to have a torch carrier. Boys are the ones that “carry on the family name.” Because I had a son, my last name would propagate, but I did not want him to have a non-unique name, one that dozens of other people likely also hold. His mother wanted to name him after me, as was tradition in her family.
I’m going to touch on both major ideals of naming kids; naming kids after their parents or family members and by creating a truly unique name. By giving a baby a common name (i.e. John Smith), parents make it harder for the rest of society to find a specific person with that name. If a person is named “Shaniqua Fri’Chickenisha Richardson,” they will be easy to find in Facebook, Google, or the phone book. However, there are thousands named “John Smith,” and naming your baby “John Smith” makes it even harder for anyone else searching for a certain John Smith. Finding a certain John Smith via Google is like looking for a needle in a haystack and you just added another piece of hay!
However, some parents will actually do substantial, irreparable harm to specific individuals by their name choice. For example, economists have shown that “different” names, often associated with ethnic groups, can hold people back in the job market. However, if “different” names became the norm this might prevent employers from using the names as a basis for discrimination.
Of course, the parents don’t know their kids’ names will ultimately have this effect. Yet, in expectation every parent should believe this could happen. Unless the parent knows their child will be unremarkable and law-abiding (which they don’t), there is a positive probability they will hurt someone else quite badly by giving their child a non-unique name.
Do unto others and name your kid uniquely, but not too uniquely. Names that are difficult to read, say, and spell could impose other negative externalities! Similarly, I have a name that isn’t too out there, but also isn’t very common. I never struggled in life because of it, and I have been complimented on it many times.
In short, I think it’s fine to give a child a “unique” name, as long as you don’t go overboard. Remember that while you may think it’s cute, the child will have to bear the name for the rest of his or her life. Would you want to go to a university interview with a name like J’Ello Pudding Cup Nevaeh? I certainly would not.
The other thing to watch is initials and what they can spell: Paul Isaac Gladstone for example sounds like a nice, solid name, but the initials would be P.I.G. Kids are very quick to pick up on that as well, plus it means monogramed gifts would be out. According to research has shown that kids with “normal” names get higher grades, and that people with normally-spelled names are thought of as more successful, nicer, smarter, and more honest.
It’s understandable that parents-to-be want to pick a name that they don’t associate with anyone else. A name that none of the people or children they know have; or at least a name that doesn’t have a bad association because of certain children in the neighborhood or family. It has to be a name that’s really special and original because it was given to this child specifically.
Be cautious, however, when you pick an unusual name. Research shows that children with unordinary names have more trouble adjusting at school. They are more likely to feel like the odd one out and are a possible target for bullies. An unusual name also turns out to have a negative effect on someone’s popularity, grades, mental health, and stress level at work. In an experiment done by Harari and McDavid, it was found that teachers grade a paper higher if written by a child with an ordinary name as opposed to an unusual or unpopular name as opposed to when they were led to believe that the child had an unusual or unpopular name (see: Harari, H. & McDavid, J.W. (1973). Teachers` expectations and name stereotypes. Journal of Educational Psychology 65, pp 222–225). Apparently, the teachers were influenced in their decision by the name that was on the paper. This same phenomenon has been reported taking place in work settings by human resource professionals, and has been an influence in the case of authors`, actors` and artists` success.
What is your take on naming kids? Do you think a name can have an influence on the life of a child?