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“Original, But Not Stupid”: What Modern Parents Look for in a Baby Name (Part I)

Why would I want to give them a name that everybody has? Like, I knew ten Mikes growing up. Why would I do that? … Nothing wrong with it, I guess, but it just seemed like it’s such a big deal to pick a name for somebody. It’s something that he’s gonna have forever, [something] I hope that he likes. Why not give him something that’s for him? You know. Special. — parent who gave her son a name from outside the top 1000 in the year he was born

The post I wrote last week on the alternative top US boys’ and girls’ names for 2013 was one of the most popular I’ve ever written for this blog, a fact that doesn’t surprise me a bit. As the quote above suggests, contemporary American parents are very interested in making sure that their child doesn’t have one of the top names. Even as the percentage of families using the top names continues to go down (the SSA estimates that about 8% of boys and girls received a top 10 name in 2013), parents are increasingly concerned with making sure their child has an appropriately distinctive name.

This phenomenon was the focus of my dissertation, filed at UCB last year. I came to the topic after discovering the “widening pool” of names — the smaller and smaller percentage of American kids receiving popular names — and to get more insight into what was going on, between 2010 and 2012 I interviewed new and expectant parents from 71 Bay Area families about how they chose their children’s names.

My findings would make for a great many blog posts if I were to put them all up here, but I’d say the biggest one of all was that the increasing diversity within American baby names isn’t a fluke, a side effect of immigration or urbanization or anything else. Parents are intentionally avoiding names they perceive as “too popular”: in fact, parents from 63 of 71 families (89% of my participants) listed distinctiveness as one of the factors they prioritized when considering names.

Of course, every family’s reason for wanting to avoid popular names was a bit different, but parents’ answers did fall into two major categories: they wanted their children to feel special, and they wanted them to stand out from the crowd. And whatever name they chose, they wanted it to be “unique, but not too unique.”

The “feeling special” piece was something I’d predicted, an extension of what’s variously been called intensive parenting, concerted cultivation, “helicopter parenting” (less charitably) or just “modern middle-class childrearing.” Over the last 20 years, a number of sociologists and anthropologists have documented the fact that parents are increasingly expected to spend time and effort actively developing their child, helping them to become their “best self.” Parents are bombarded with messages telling them the right way to raise their child, that every decision has the potential to cause irrevocable damage, and most of all, that their child is the most special little person in the world. I had one mother tell me that “giving a child a popular name is like telling them they’re not unique, and they’re not special.” Eleven families talked specifically about how stressful it was to pore over books and draft list after list of names: “I couldn’t believe the responsibility of naming another human being… I felt tremendous pressure. I mean, I just think that it’s an incredible responsibility, because it’s not your name. It’s somebody else’s. Somebody else has to live with it.”

As far as wanting children to stand out, this, too, reflects larger cultural trends. Teens applying to college are told to focus their essays on what makes them unique. For a while, the Toyota Scion marketed itself to consumers “united by individuality.” A few parents spoke about the practical benefits of having a name that stood out on a resume (though not too much), but more talked about the social benefits, how not being one of four people in a class with the same name would help their child better figure out who they were.

And yet — no one wanted to be “weird.” In their work on culture and identity, UCB sociologists Ann Swidler and Claude Fischer draw a distinction between individualism and individuation; the first means that you’re completely removed from everyone else, while the second means that you fit comfortably as a distinct entity within the group. By that marker, the parents I talked to were seeking individuation for their kids. Parents from 30 of 71 families expressed some version of this binary: “not super-popular, but not so out there,” or “a little less common, while not being insane,” or “unusual, but not too weird.” Everyone wanted to be different; no one wanted to be strange.

When I was conducting interviews, like a good researcher, I didn’t offer much to the conversation to avoid biasing people’s responses. If parents didn’t talk about the fact that the top boys’ and girls’ names in 2010 were each given to less than 1% of babies, I didn’t bring it up; if someone misremembered the main point from the names chapter in Freakonomics and explained how Dubner and Levitt pointed out that your child’s name has a HUGE impact on their life chances (not actually true, but that’s probably a different post), I let them talk. But now that the project’s done, after talking to lots and lots of parents and doing lots of analysis and reading far too many books, my semi-professional advice to nervous parents would probably be this: pick a name you like. Don’t worry too much about whether it’s a popular or an unpopular name (because even the popular names aren’t that popular). Realize that your child will be special no matter what you name them — and rest secure in the knowledge that no matter what you do, you will never be able to really get out ahead of cultural trends. You want the perfectly distinctive name, and in that, you’re just like everybody else.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m in the Bay Area and participated in adding a named child to the community last year, so this post is especially interesting to me. I’ve been thinking about why I feel so strongly about naming a child with an non-popular/unique/different name and have 2 reasons.

    1) When I was growing up in California, the set of class years surrounding mine took extreme pride in avoiding that which was popular or mainstream. For example, I haven’t seen Titanic, and I have friends who refuse to read Harry Potter. Naming a child with one of the top 100 names /feels/ like it would be so sheep-like.

    2) With the advent of the Internet, it is so much easier to open an account (Twitter, school login, work username) when you have a name that no one else shares. Who wants to be harrietsmith2?

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    • If it’s any consolation, remember that the “most popular” names are SIGNIFICANTLY less popular now than they were a generation ago — even the #1 name is given to less than 1% of babies.

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