Changing A Child’s Name After Adoption

A name is a deeply personal thing

Elizabeth Curry May 20, 2017
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There are some adoption topics that everyone has an opinion on, and many of those opinions are vastly different from one another. Naming an adopted child seems to be one of those touchy subjects. A name is a deeply personal thing. What your name is, who named you, what significance your name has, and any ethnic ties your name proclaims tells the world a lot about who you are and where you come from. It is no wonder that the topic of naming an adopted child is a volatile one.

We have five adopted children, and we’ve done something different as far as naming goes with nearly each one. To complicate factors, we also have seven biological children, who all have family names for each of their first and middle names. Each time we bring another child into our family we run up against the conundrum of how to make our new child a part of our family while at the same time honoring their past and their ethnicity.

For our first adopted son, we kept his given name and added a family name for the middle name. This worked well as his given name was pretty pronounceable in English and wouldn’t cause him undue bother. He uses half of this first name.

Our second adopted son came with a given name that we could just barely wrap our mouths around, but knew that no one would ever get it right even after being told how to pronounce it. We kept the more easily pronounced part of his given name and added a different Vietnamese name before it. We did this with the help of a Vietnamese friend to be sure we weren’t unknowingly making a huge gaffe in a language we didn’t speak. His middle name is a family name. He uses the Vietnamese name we chose for him.

Our first adopted daughter came from a foster care situation which was run by Americans. As a result, she was already using an American name for the English-speaking volunteers with whom she interacted, as well as using her Chinese given name on regular basis. Since she was older when we adopted her, we felt as though she had lost so much in her life that we didn’t want her to lose her names as well, and chose to keep both her American and Chinese names that she was already using. We did add a family name into the mix. She uses the American name, which was her advocacy name.

Our second and third adopted daughters were also older. For both of them we chose family names and then kept their Chinese given names as middle names. (Mainly because I liked the way the names flowed better.) We gave each of them the choice of which name she wanted to use. One of them chose to use her American name in daily use, but prefers to use her Chinese name when interacting with Mandarin speakers. The other would love it if we would take the time to use all of her names all the time, but the family tendency is to shorten her full name to just her Chinese name in daily use.

Why do I share all of this? To illustrate that the naming process is not a formulaic thing. This process is made doubly difficult because you are being asked to name a child whom you don’t really know. Without some shared history between you, it is not easy to answer questions such as: How does the child feel about his name? Who gave your child her name? Does the child prefer to have a name representing his ethnicity or does he want his name to blend in more? Is there a naming pattern in your family that it would be odd to have a child not match? Would not using part of your child’s given name make her feel as though you were unaccepting of it or embarrassed by it?

As the parent of an adolescent, I can also tell you that the answers to these questions can change. A child who loved his given name can turn on a dime during the tumult of adolescence and decide he doesn’t like it at all. It is hard to be a teen at the best of times, but to be a teen whose name is constantly mispronounced (even though it is an easy name to say), can become tedious very quickly. And I won’t even begin to try to address the issue of microaggressions and ethnic names at this time. That’s an article all by itself.

It is the prerogative of a parent to name their child. It is a way of saying, “This child is mine, and belongs to my family.” With children who are born to us, this is a simple process. For children who come to us via adoption, the situation is a lot cloudier. Yes, I can name my adopted child whatever I want, but that doesn’t mean I should. Even if I don’t change my child’s name, it is still a choice I am making as a parent. There are strong cases to be made for keeping a child’s given name. There are equally strong cases to be made for changing a child’s name and indicating a new chapter of life with new alliances. Whichever route you choose, do so with thoughtfulness, and a realization that your child’s name is just one sign of a past which did not involve you, whether that makes you comfortable or not.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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