If there were a top 10 list of the most frequently asked questions about adoption, the question “Can I/Should I change an adopted child’s name?” would be on it. It’s asked at least once a month on the 6,000 person adoption-related Facebook group I enjoy.
Like almost everything in the adoption community, changing a child’s name is controversial. However, with most topics, you will receive opinions that run the full spectrum from “You must do this or your child will hate you!” to “Meh. Do what you think is best for your family,” to “You must not do this or your child will hate you!”
With the name change question, there are only three answers:
1. Yes! You should change your child’s name. You are the parent now!
2. No! You should not change your child’s name. You must honor the one thing they bring with them from their birth families.
3. Only if it’s too ethnic.
I’m serious. There is no middle ground. That’s the first thing you need to know.
The second thing you need to know is that a name does not reflect the child’s personality; it reflects the parents’ personalities. There’s a chapter in the book Freakonomics about this. A child’s name is a reflection of his parents, specifically, of his parents’ education. There was nothing inherently “Kathleen” about my mother at birth. There was nothing inherently “Ann” about my sister or “Jackson” about my son. Names are a reflection of the people who give them, not of the people who receive them.
Third, it is very easy to change a name. I know—I’ve done it twice. I changed my first name when I was 17 and my last name when I got married. The first cost $19 and involved an application and a couple of signatures from my parents. (Granted, that was in 1992. Today, it costs an average of $150 – $500.) I cannot remember how much it cost to change my name after I got married, although I did have to wait in line at the Social Security office. One advantage to the United States not having naming laws, as some other countries do, is that a person can change her name pretty much whenever she wants to whatever she wants. A name is not necessarily permanent.
Fourth, there is some merit to the “only if it’s too ethnic” camp. Research suggests that “ethnic names,” aka “Black names,” aka “ghetto names,” aka “Walmart names,” can negatively impact a person’s education and employment opportunities. Should a person’s name matter when it comes to hiring decisions? Probably not. And yet, if names didn’t matter, would people have such vociferous opinions about them?
Fifth, if you do plan to change a child’s name, and you have any kind of ongoing contact with the child’s birth parents, tell them you’re going to change the name. Some people might say to ask them if you can change it. No matter which approach you take, the birth parents should know that you are changing the name. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you are changing the children’s names for legitimate safety reasons (hence the part about “ongoing contact.”) I chose a name for my daughter when I was 8. My daughter’s birth mother did not like the name. We did not like the name she chose. Our facilitator advised us to lie and say we’d keep her name. The facilitator’s rationale was that we didn’t want to lose the match over a name. Well, lying was not an option. We told Cassie’s birth mom that we would be naming her Cassandra, but we’d keep the middle name her birth mom chose.
Sixth, don’t get your knickers in a twist if the birth family uses the child’s previous name. If your child doesn’t care, be like Elsa, and let it go. If your child does care, address the birth family and let them know. Then, brainstorm some ways your child can handle the situation.
Finally, speaking of your child, if he’s old enough to have an opinion, solicit it. Listen to it. Do you want to let a 3-year old choose his own name? Probably not. But he’ll likely have an opinion on whether he wants to remain Liam or become Aidan.
There you have it—seven things you need to know about name changes in adoption.
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