Parenting young children — 25 November 2007
Naming your baby is a serious task

One of the thrilling responsibilities of parenthood is the naming of their newborn infants. Most parents take this task seriously and carefully evaluate their choices –and indeed they should. A person’s name is the first introductory label of the individual and is an exceptionally important part of the individual’s identity throughout life.

The main reason that a name is so important is because it distinguishes the individual and facilitates his connection to others. One’s name is the first word in personal introduction and it either facilitates or obstructs quick acceptance. People connect with others more quickly when their names are easily identifiable, repeatable and familiar.

Some parents search for a unique name for their baby to make him/her more distinctive and special. Though it may be enchanting for some, unusual names may actually interfere with social intimacy rather than enhance it.

From first experience I can attest to the discomfort a unique name may create. Offra is both a biblical and a modern Hebrew name. It is a place’s name in the Old Testament and means ‘fawn’ in conversational Hebrew. Due to its unfamiliar sound, a common response in introductions is: “what?” or “Who gave you this name?” or “How do you spell it?” These reactions create distance where connection is sought. It causes a momentary discomfort with each new introduction that those with more familiar names do not have.

Uncommon names negatively impact one’s esteem and may even contribute to mental illness. Researcher Orlo Strunk, Jr. of West Virginia Wesleyan College found that “there appears to be a persistent tendency for individuals who dislike their first name to have less affirmative attitudes toward themselves than those who like their first name.”

Researchers also found a relationship between very unusual and uncommon names and emotional illness. Ellis and Beechley in their article “Emotional Disturbance in Children with Peculiar Given Names” found that this correlation exists and is greater for boys than for girls for whom different names are more socially accepted.

It is common in some families to name children after their fathers. The American novelist, Henry James, found it objectionable to have the same name as his famous father, who occasionally even wrote for the same issue of “The Atlantic Monthly”. The young Henry James’ biographer, Leon Edel, reports: “throughout his life, Henry volubly protested against the parental failure to let him have a distinctive name and (by the same token) an identity of his own.”

Each period produces a list of popular or fad names chosen by many parents. Though it may bond the parents who select the same pretty names for their babies, the high frequency of a specific name in school may create some difficulties in personal differentiation. It also may date the individual. A woman named Mabel is probably over 80 years old today, women named Farah were probably born in late 1950’s or early 1960’s.

Using uni-gender names may be a safe choice for parents and compromising to their children. For example, a boy named Gail or Leslie may struggle with gender ambiguity, as may girls named Alex, Sam or Bobbie. Parents may want to examine their motivation in assigning these names to their children. What might be cute in infancy may not serve their children in adulthood quite as well.

Another category of names depicts trait attributes. Since the child’s personality is not distinctive at birth, Joy may turn out to be a pensive girl, Melody a taciturn child and Sunny a moody one.

When a child becomes the brunt of scorn and torment by other children by being called: “Small Paul”, “Nosey Rosie”, “Fat Matt” or “Skinny Ginny”, parents must deal with it immediately to reduce the damage to the child’s self-esteem.

• Consider name selection from the child’s perspective – it is your permanent gift to your child’s wellbeing.
• Pick a name that has a familiar sound to help your child blend and belong rather than become distanced from others.
• Consider the sound of the first name combined with the last one.
• Test your name choices with friends and family for reactions. Consider their responses carefully.
• Abstain from initial names like P.J. or J.R. they may interfere with your child’s sense of personal differentiation.
• If your child intensely dislikes his/her name, consider allowing the child to change the name during pre-adolescent years. It is not a discount to you- it is healthy parenting to facilitate your child’s comfort with his/her identity.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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