This week I was a guest on the Today show to discuss the New Name Game in Parenting. One of the biggest parenting dilemmas used to be choosing our kids’ first names. We’d spend hours leafing through those thick baby books trying to find just the perfect one to fit our little one. These days that “Name Game” is far more complicated: many parents struggle with choosing the first and last name for their child. And that’s because of the dramatic change in the concept of family.
More than half of all children will live in a single parent family at some point in their childhood. Many parents will remarry, and those vows often bring new members to the family (translation: your spouse’s kids). But there are other family configurations as well: step families, blended families, adoption, same-sex parents, foster parents, single parents, moms using career names; divorced moms reverting to maiden names, and grandparents raising the kids. Those family tree school projects we did back in grade school sure would be a lot more complicated for some kids these days. “The Name Game Dilemma” has become so common, that the Today show asked me to offer parents advice on a recent segment.
If you are in this situation–or about to be–there are a few things you might want to consider so you make the best name choice for your child. Do know that this is such a new phenomenon that as of now there is no research to guide you. Here are a few parenting secrets to help you:
* Choose what’s best for your family. Your goal is to opt for the name that suits your family’s unique situation. Names are core part of our identity, so the process might be a bit rocky, and even “emotionally draining.” Be prepared, stay cool and listen to all family members. A little compromising may be in order. Then choose the name you and your family is most comfortable with.
* Think ahead. Remember, your child will probably carry that name at least until the age of eighteen (at which time he may legally change it). So fast forward your child to when he is school age and think through any possible complications that might result in your name decision. Then choose what is best for your child both now and later.
* Normalize the name difference early. Toddlers usually learn to say their names around three years of age. It’s also the best time to teach your child his last name as well as yours. Just be matter-of-fact and brief. “Your name is Sally Smith. Mommy’s name is Laura Kelly.” Young kids don’t need lengthy explanations. Then answer questions as they are asked.
* Explain your motive. If you choose to change your last name, explain your decision in simple terms your kids can understand. They can paraphrase your explanation to any who might ask why their name differs from yours. A divorced friend told her kids that she was taking back her maiden name because it was her birth name and had special meaning for her. No further explanation was needed: her kids were satisfied.
* Try a good book. If are tongue-tied, seek out a children’s librarian who can recommend kid books that apply to your family’s situation. From stepparents, foster parents, divorce, same-sex parents, blended families, there is wonderful literature available that might make your “talk” easier.
* Visit the school. Whenever you enroll your child in a new school you must show legal documentation including your child’s birth certificate and guardianship papers. Only then can the school release school records and your child to you. Also, if your child has any special medical needs (peanut allergies, asthma, or taking prescribed medication), alert the school nurse and provide necessary emergency contact information for her as well.
* Talk to the teacher. Teachers will call students by the legal name listed on their roster. If you want your child to be called by a different name, alert the teacher before your child enters her class. Otherwise you may have a distraught kid on your hands wondering why the teacher is calling her by the “wrong name.”
* Seek significant caregivers. Any adult responsible for your child’s safety (such as babysitters, scout leaders, coaches, Boys and Girls Club leaders) should be informed. In case your child needs medical care, that caregiver needs authorized instruction, medical insurance, emergency contact names and in some cases proof of your legal guardianship. It might be a good idea for you to carry that information as well.
* Travel with legal documentation. If you plan to leave the country (including Canada and Mexico) with your children, always carry legal proof of guardianship, passports and birth certificates. Custom agents will check those documents.
* Have conviction. Whatever name route you choose—be it your child having a different last name, hyphenating his parents names, or even your child pulling his parents names from a hat (the only way one family could decide), stick with your choice. If you are comfortable with your decision, chances are your child will be as well.
As for whether different last names concern kids, I did a little research on my own and interviewed dozens children to get their perspective. “Do you know kids whose last names are different from their parents?” “Sure,” they answered, “Lots of them.” Then I’d ask: “Do you think a different last name causes kids any problems?” And almost every child would look up with the same puzzled look. “Why?” they would say. “What’s the big deal?”
What I learned is that most kids don’t think different last names is any big deal. And why should they? They are growing up in a rapidly changing world, and seem to be handling the changes quite well. What does matter to them is what has never changed: How their family treats them. Safety, belonging, and acceptance are what our kids really care about. So keep that perspective, parents. After all, this is really is only about a name.
REALITY CHECK: There are really only three questions all children ask of their families: “Am I safe? Am I loved? Do I belong?” Strong families–regardless of size, income, or names—provide those needs. So put your parenting energies on the things that count most in raising happy, secure and fulfilled kids. Remember, it’s not the names that matter, but meeting those needs.
All the best in raising healthy, happy kids!