When Is It Appropriate to Change Your Child’s Name?

Choosing a name is an important decision to make.

Jennifer Kaldwell August 07, 2019
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Changing a child’s given name at birth can be a heated debate within the adoption community. Some believe that parents should name the child when adopting, others believe that if the birth parents have named the child then the name ought to remain unchanged. Some people strongly believe that you ought to maintain any and all possible connections, including the given name, that a child may have to their birth family. How do you know when it is appropriate to change your child’s name, and when you should keep the given name?

To be honest, there is no rule set in stone regarding what to do in these situations. If there were an actual rule written somewhere, it would lighten the stress load for adoptive parents who are not sure what they should do. Then, they could look to the rule book and follow along. Or, if they are the rebellious type, they could break the rules and welcome the judgment that follows.

But, as we all know and have heard many times, there is no parenting manual.

There are no rules in parenting. Nobody can tell you what is right or wrong. We are all just winging it and hoping we are making the best decisions. As long as the best interest of the child is at the heart of your decisions, you are doing a good job! And, no matter what you do, there will be those who disagree. So, the truth is, you need to decide if you feel it is appropriate to change your child’s name at adoption.

When the child being adopted is an infant, it is common for parents to pick their own name for their baby. Some birth mothers will name a child at birth prior to the adoption, but with infants, this is easy to change. The child will not have learned the name given by his or her birth mother, and changing the name early on will not require notifications or special paperwork. When the adoption is finalized, the new name would go right on the adoption paperwork and would appear on the newly issued birth certificate.

There are times when birth mothers will ask if they can participate in the naming of the child they are placing for adoption. With open adoption becoming commonplace, more birth mothers are able to form relationships with parents who are adopting their children. In these situations, sometimes birth parents and adoptive parents pick names together, prior to birth. This may be a gesture that a birth mom finds helps her cope. But for others, this may be too hard to do together because it is a bonding experience that is too overwhelming. Again, this is a decision that needs to be made individually. However, if you agree to a name with your child’s birth mother as part of the adoption plan, you ought to stick with the agreed name. In some states, open adoption agreements are enforceable by law, and in others, they are not recognized. Regardless of where you reside, if you choose an open adoption and make agreements, it is important to honor your word.

What if you are adopting a child you have had since infancy, but who placed with you as a foster child first? The time that the adoption is taking place may be past the infancy stage and into toddlerhood. Is it okay to change the name of the child at this point?

When we are no longer talking about infant adoption, and instead about toddlers or older children, changing names becomes a bit more complicated. Whether or not to change the name is a parental decision. That said, many will have opinions and judgments.

I can tell you about my experience with changing my toddler’s name when he was adopted.

My youngest son was a foster care placement at his birth. His adoption did not finalize until he was nearly 2 years old. His birth mother had given him a name at birth, and that name was on his original birth certificate. We did not use that name, however, in our time with him. We knew immediately that it was not a name we would have picked or one we would want to have for him if we were able to adopt. We could not call him by another name while he was in foster care though. Teaching the child a name that is not theirs is not appropriate when a child is in foster care. The exception to this, however, is a nonsense nickname.

A nonsense nickname? What is a nonsense nickname?

We all know someone who has a nickname that has nothing to do with their actual name but is widely used in its place. I have had many kids that prefer nicknames to given names. For instance, a nonsense name would be if a child was named Joe, but everyone referred to him as “Buddy.” What if your little girl is named Cindy, but you always call her “Peanut” instead? Another option is if a child prefers to use an initial over their full name. Maybe the name is Joe, but everyone simply says, “J.” In this example, choosing another name that starts with “J” would make sense if you are not planning to stick with Joe. These types of nicknames are ways to avoid teaching a young child a name you do not plan to use, without being negative about the name. It will also make the transition to learning their new name easier.

In my case, my youngest son was given a nonsense nickname, and he responded to that name until he was 2 years old. We never used the name he was given at birth, and so he rarely heard that name, and never formed a connection to it. When we were finally able to officially adopt, it made changing his first name very easy for us. We did choose to make his birth name his middle name, to honor his birth mother. This was a personal choice and not something everyone would feel comfortable doing.

With older children, it can be a bit more complicated. My older son was adopted just before age 6. He knew his first name, but he didn’t know his middle or last name. We chose to keep his first name and change the others.

Could we have changed his first name too? Of course, we could have. However, he really liked his name, and we did too. It suits him.

This may not always be the case though. If you are adopting an older child who has a name that just doesn’t fit well, it is okay to change it. Depending on the age of the child, they may want to participate in the discussion of name choices. It can be fun to involve an older child in the name change. It is also a fun way to get them involved in their adoption process and help them feel a part of the huge decisions that are being made in their lives. When an older child is allowed to be part of the decision-making process, it may help them embrace the changes to their lives, and help them cope with being adopted as an older child.

If you are choosing to change a child’s name, how do you pick a new name?

Maybe you want to choose a family name, and name him after his great-grandpa?

Maybe you want to choose your favorite flower, and call your daughter Lily?

Is there a character from a favorite book or movie that you want to name your child after?

Do you wish to connect the name to the process, and want to name your child a name that holds meaning to you, or is connected to their background?

There are many ways to choose a name for a child. There are so many baby books full of names and their meanings. The internet now makes it incredibly easy to look up name meanings and origins too. Often, you can look up names based on origin or meanings and also find names that are similar or related. For instance, if I type in a search engine, “Spanish name meaning star,” I can find several names, beginning with “Estella.” Other suggestions include Noelani, which is Hawaiian in origin, or Celina which is Greek and means heaven. This site has thousands of names with many ways to search them.

While looking for names that inspire you, you will find so many possibilities that it may be hard to pick just one!

There are many lists of baby names available from names by origin, meaning, popularity based on year, Disney-inspired, vintage-inspired, classic, unusual, celebrity baby names, etc. Finding a name to fit your child can be a fun yet daunting task! How you choose to pick a name for your child is as individual as they are. Whether you decide to go with a name that has been repeated in the family or a name that is just becoming popular, it is a decision that is personal. There will always be someone who is not a fan of the name you choose. You cannot please everyone, and so this is a time to choose what will make you happy, not Aunt Martha.

What about the changing of the child’s surname?

In most adoptions, the child takes the surname of the parents who are adopting.

In some cases, for instance, in older child adoption or teen adoption, a child may wish to keep his or her surname. This is a personal family decision. There is no rule to follow when deciding what to do. If a parent and child both have strong feelings on this topic that are different, it may be wise to compromise with a hyphenated last name.

Some older children who are adopted feel like their name is their identity, and changing it is too overwhelming. Their given name is a connection to their biological family and to their past, and it may be a name they wish to keep. As a parent, this may be difficult for you to compromise. You may be so joyful that you are finally able to adopt, and changing the child’s name may feel like it is necessary to make it official.

All of these feelings are valid. There are many feelings that go along with naming and adoption.

This is an important decision to make. There are times when everyone may not feel happy with the decision made. The important thing to remember is that there will always be someone who is judging the choices you make. The only people who matter are those directly involved and affected by the choice. If you are adopting an older child who is adamant about keeping their given name, please consider their point of view. If they are nearing adulthood, and they have strong connections to the name they were given, would you be causing them unnecessary trauma and stress by forcing them to change the name?

There are many families today that do not have matching last names. Many homes have mixed families with more than one last name within the household. Unlike many years ago, a child will not stick out if they do not have your last name. Consider the reasons you wish to change the name, along with the reasons your older child may wish to keep their current name. It is important to make decisions based on the child’s best interest, and not simply your personal preference.

One instance where it may be necessary to change an older child’s name, even if they do not want to, is for safety. If you are adopting a child who would be unsafe if their biological family were able to locate them, you may need to change their name. Again, in this situation, involving them in the process may help relieve some of the negative feelings they may have toward the change.

Another option, if a name change is necessary, is for the entire family to choose a new name to represent themselves. Maybe a fun combination of your child’s last name and your own last name, to create a new name for everyone could be a fun compromise. There are unlimited possibilities when choosing name options. In this case though, if the family chooses a new name together, there will be costs involved to change the name of the individuals who are not being adopted.

Any time a name is changed, there may be some cost involved. The cost of the new birth certificate, paperwork filing fees, and in some cases, you must advertise in local papers that the change will occur. A judge must also approve the changes, and there may be a court hearing based on the petition to change names.

Choosing names for your children is a fun experience. This doesn’t have to be something you miss out on if you are adopting.

If you are waiting for your adoption to finalize, and wish to find the perfect name, there are so many lists and books available to help you find the name you love. Whether you prefer a common name, a name connected to your child’s culture or journey, or a wild new name, as the parent, the decision is up to you!

 

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Jennifer Kaldwell

Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children's classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.


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