The Importance of Names for Adoptees

To keep or not to keep the name after adoption?

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Naming your child can be a difficult decision to make for any parent. When you are considering a name for a child you are adopting who already comes with a name, either given to the child by his or her birth parent(s) or by someone in an orphanage, the decision can become more difficult, often involving unfamiliar people and cultures.

Prospective parents sometimes struggle over whether to keep a name that was already given to a child. Many questions will run through their minds:

  • If I decide to keep the child’s given name, should it be their first name?
  • Should it be their middle name?
  • What if it’s not a name that I or my spouse like?
  • How will a birth parent feel if I do or don’t keep a name?
  • How will my child feel?
  • How might I feel about naming my child?
  • What are my traditions?
  • What about the traditions of my child’s culture?

Questions & Answers

Question: Rose, what’s the general feeling about changing a toddler’s name? Is there a particular age at which it isn’t such a good idea?
Rose: I think you need to look at each situation. I would say that at the point when a child can communicate, you might want to rethink changing his or her name. Developmentally, kids might be the same age, but at different stages. I can tell you that a family who adopted a four-year-old decided to keep his name, and I saw that as very appropriate.

Question: Do you have any input from adoptees who have had their names changed? Positive or negative?
Rose: I’ve heard of both reactions. It’s really individual. We just had an adoptee present at a home study group. She spoke of feeling real jealousy of her cousin who was also adopted whose parents kept his Korean name as his middle name. Her parents did not keep any part of her given name.

Question: Is there any common thread you see in families that do or don’t keep the birth name, even as a middle name?
Rose: I think it’s more related to a deeper issue of their parents’ comfort with the child’s history and culture. Maybe it’s hard for the parents to deal with the fact that this child is not exactly like a child who might have been biologically related.

Question: What if we, parents, really have an aversion to the child’s birth name? He’s two and a half years old and still in-country.
Rose: I’m thinking that if the child is still in-country, it might be possible to ask whoever is caring for the child to introduce his new name to him. Although, I think if you could hold onto his given name in some way, that it would mean a lot to him. It would mean a lot to his birth parents as well. Even if he had been named by an orphanage, it’s still part of his history. Keeping the name as a middle name is a nice option, as is coming up with a variation on the name. When he’s older he might decide he wants to be called by his middle name. I’m thinking as an adolescent, identity issues come up.
Comment: The original name is one of the few pieces of original identity adoptive parents can give their child, so it’s nice to have even as a middle name. I like the idea of suggesting to the foster parents that they start letting him hear the name so he can get used to the sound of it.
Rose: I think if the child were a little bit older, it might be harder for him. However, I know of someone who was adopted from Korea at age 6 whose name was changed by her parents, but they kept her Korean name as a middle name. She speaks of really liking her name.

Question: What about an older child adopted domestically whose safety may require a name change? How do you explain it?
Rose: Depending on her age, she might be at the age where a discussion can be had with her. You can talk to her about her situation and how serious it is and that you need to protect her. In that though, I’m thinking an older child might want to have some say in what her new name would be. It sounds like a very out-of-control situation for her, and having a part of naming herself can give her some sense of control over some parts of her life.

Question: What about letting children choose their own names more generally?
Rose: Well, that can be good and not so good. What if you hate the name the child picks? Or worse, what if they want to name themselves after a cartoon or superhero? I think as the parent for a young child who hasn’t yet identified himself with the name given at birth, that ultimately you are the parent and part of that is naming your child. It connects you to this child. It’s something that you give your child that stays with them. A birth name carries a lot of weight for adoptees. It’s who they are from before they were with their adoptive parents. It’s their history.

Question: Is anything special needed when a child starts the “You aren’t my real mother,” stage and adds on, “And don’t call me (adoptive name), my name is (birth name)?”
Rose: I’m sure there are smart kids out there who do that. They know what buttons to push and take it to the limit. But I might want to talk more to my child about it if it did come up– maybe not in the moment, but later revisit it and ask about how they feel about their birth name, validating the child’s feelings that he or she is different but loved by his parents and will always be their child and a part of the family.

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