An excellent article by Deborah McCurdy, MSW gives ideas and
preferences with which I highly agree. Naming a child is such a
personal matter that Parents are bound to have strong feelings
about making their own choice without outside influence. The
following guidelines (based on the needs of foreign-born
children) leave enough options open that parents still have a
wide range of choices - especially when naming an infant. There
may be times, however, when our personal taste in names will have
to take second place to the child's needs or desires because
names are so closely tied to self-image and self-esteem.
Choosing a first name or a middle name from your child's country
affirms your child's cultural and national heritage as an
important part of him. It demonstrates to your child and to the
world that his original cultural identity is a source of pride.
It is an open, acknowledgement of a positive kind of difference
that will always be of our child. It may be especially important
as your child grows older, but having a typical American name as
well may be just as important. Your child can then have the best
of both his worlds!
I have read differing opinions as to whether the birth-country
name should be chosen as the first name or the middle name. There
are those who feel strongly that the name the child came with
should be retained as the first name, if it "works." Others point
out that there will be times when your child will want to have a
simple, familiar American name to feel more like the other kids
in the neighborhood. For this reason, many adoptive parents give
their infant an American first name (or else a birth-country name
such as Lee, Lin, Julia, Andrea, or Daniel - this is also an
American name). A birth-country name combined with an American
name gives the child the opportunity to affirm either side of his
or her cultural identity, depending on the child's mood and stage
of development. Mary Kim may wish to be called by both her names
at certain times, as her parents now do. At other stages she may
wish to introduce herself simply as "Mary" or "Kim". Two short,
simple names allow her these options. A boy named John Carlos
Clark could have the alternatives of John C. Clark or J. Carlos
Clark, depending on his preference at different ages. (You can
find names in books and articles about your child's birth country
at a city library.)
There is another reason to keep all names short and simple. It is
a burden for children and teenagers to frequently spell out a
long, complicated name for others when meeting new people,
registering for camp, etc. It is much easier to be Lee Johnson or
Lee Paul Johnson than Gareth Byeong Johnson-Phillips According to
research done by psychologist Rom Harre and others, children with
an unusual, unfamiliar name can feel different in a negative way.
Our children will already have two major differences to deal
with: being adopted and (potentially) being of a minority race.
While we will be helping them to see these two differences as
very positive ones, we can choose to minimize other differences
by giving them short, simple, familiar names.
How do adopted teenagers feel about their names? There are
probably no polls on this question, but I've heard remarks that
indicate that some adoptees of this age want a part of their name
to reflect their original cultural identity. One girl commented
that the best thing her adoptive parents had done for her was to
retain her Korean name. On another occasion, an Asian teenager on
an adoptee panel exclaimed indignantly, "I'm no Amy!" If she had
been named Lin Amy or Amy Lin, she might have felt more validated
as a Korean-American. A teenager who has both an American first
name and a middle name from his birth-country can be offered the
option of reversing these names if he develops a strong interest
in affirming his original cultural identity. But some teenagers
will value an American name more than their birth-country name
(another argument for giving both!).
Many adoption workers and psychologists feel that if your child
is age two or older, it is vitally important to call him by the
name he is accustomed to, at least until he is ready to make a
major change on his own. (Check with the foster mother or
orphanage, as a Maria Cristina may be called "Cristi.") Those
adopting a school-age child should eventually ask the child his
preference as to being called by his original name or choosing an
American name, since this could have an effect on his
self-esteem. If an American name is chosen by your child, it
should be selected from a list of simple, familiar names that you
have prepared for him. The "old" name can then become a middle
name so that the child does not lose an important part of
himself. (Discourage him from rejecting it altogether even if he
chooses not to use if for a time.)
When children and teenagers experiment with rearranging their
names, there's no need to rush into a legal change of name.
Legally your child can go by any name he chooses. By adulthood he
may be back to the names you chose for him!
Deborah McCurdy, MSW is Adoption Supervisor at Beacon Adoption
Center in Great Barrington, MA, and has a Colombian-born son.
If you or someone you love want to welcome a child into their
lives and families, as my husband and I did, we can help.