When she was pregnant, Satya Twena, a 36-year-old hat maker and fashion designer in Ojai, California, was in a yoga class when her daughter’s name came to her in a meditation. The name was Wish. “Wish named herself because she was already active and alive in my wife,” said Jeffrey Zurofsky, 45, who founded ’Wichcraft with Tom Colicchio before moving to California to work as an adviser and consultant.
To the dismay of Twena and Zurofsky, their second child didn’t appear to choose his own name … initially. So he was without a name after being born at home in January. It didn’t take long, though, for the infant to offer his own signs, Zurofsky said.
The little one opened his eyes when his father placed sage under his nose; the family remembered that the song playing during the birth was all about wisdom and elders; and a post-birth visitor had a 28-year-old son named Sage. So Sage it was.
“If I could, I would let them go their entire lives and they could name themselves, but I feel strongly that their names came from them, so I think we did pretty good,” Zurofsky said about Wish and Sage. “But if Wish changes her mind and wants to be called Jill or Jim, absolutely. If she wants to be called 8,600, that’s fine, too. They are smarter and wiser than we are on their own behalfs.”
Many parents have begun to follow their children’s lead when it comes to gender and identity. Now some are allowing their children to choose their own name, or to change their name as soon as they have a real preference.
While some children enjoy having the freedom to choose their own name, it may not be the best way to offer them this independence, said Carole Lieberman, a child psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, California.
“These parents are rebelling against tradition just for the thrill of it without realizing how much they are harming their kids,” said Lieberman, who is a parenting expert and the author of “Lions, Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My!” “Children who have a place holder name or no name would feel like they have no identity and would surely suffer psychological problems.”
A better option: They could legally change their name when they’re older and more mature, Lieberman said.
J Martin Griffith, 36, who works for a clean energy company in Philadelphia, had the option to choose his own name from birth and beyond, but he still can’t make that big decision.
Griffith’s mother named him J, which doesn’t officially stand for anything. “My mother always told me growing up that I could choose a new name,” he said. “I batted around 1,000 names but could never settle on any one name.”
He tried lots of J names and also considered non-J names, but nothing stuck. When he was growing up, some people called him Martin, while a few called him J or “J-the-letter.” Today, the vast majority call him Marty or Martin, as he still hasn’t settled. Griffith isn’t the biggest fan of letting children choose their names.
“It is hard enough naming someone else, let alone naming yourself, and a name has surprising weight out in the world, I think,” he said.
Still, living with a name that you hate until adulthood is tough, said Embe Guadagno, 29, of Downey, California, whose original name was Zierah.
“I had expressed to my mother my entire life that I hated that no one was able to pronounce it,” Guadagno said. She gave herself the name Embe in high school, and legally changed it when she was 19 or 20.
Today, she has let her 3-year-old daughter, Laila, know that if there’s a name she likes better than her own, she can change it immediately. So far, she has considered her middle name, Jude, along with Daisy.
George Vuckovic, 43, a preschool administrator in River Forest, Illinois, also doesn’t see the harm in letting children choose their names. He and his partner, Esther Hunt, a massage therapist, 34, nearly named their daughter Athena but switched to Isabelle in the hospital. A month later, they changed their minds again and renamed her Elena.
Now Elena, who is 8, has tinkered with changing her name back to Athena or to Iris.
“It’s her life, and if she finds meaning in a different name, why not?” Vuckovic said. “Other than the potential hassles of multiple identity profiles and red flags that could raise.” Tiffany Towers, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, said she understands why parents may be agreeable to allowing their children to choose or change their names so readily.
It can be either an attempt to empower their children or to avoid the pressure of assigning a name to their offspring, Towers said. Perhaps the parents don’t want to feel responsible for their child being bullied for having a weird or old-fashioned name. Or maybe they believe that their child’s future will be shaped by this initial identity of a name (a name that the child didn’t request), and they fear that their child will resent them or feel oppressed by their name.
But, she said, giving children permission to change or choose a name could be very confusing for the child.
“It would cause them to question not only their own identity, but whether they can trust their parents to make other decisions that affect them,” Towers said.
This process is not always so consequential, however.
John Duffy, a psychologist and the author of The Available Parent, who lives in Chicago, said he noticed a rise in children with “place holder” names. He has worked with children who have been allowed and encouraged to change their names to ones that they feel represent them better.
“I think it is an artifact of parents, very consciously, allowing their kids as much control over their identity as possible,” Duffy said in an email. “Parents have told me that they feel presumptuous naming their child, not knowing for certain what he or she may want; I think it’s a counterreaction to accusations of overparenting or helicopter parenting.” From the children’s perspectives, Duffy said he has noticed that they feel empowered through choosing or changing their name.
Even choosing a middle name is a start.
Daniel Block, 51, a geography professor in Oak Park, Illinois, said his parents believed that children should be allowed to choose their middle names. He tried several before settling on his current one.
First, there was Ernie, when he was in his “Sesame Street” stage. Then, when he was 7, he wanted to be Daniel Kennedy because he thought John . Kennedy was cool. But Kennedy was a little formal, so he soon switched to Kenneth. From ages 11 to 17, Block went without a middle name.
“Finally, I decided I wanted a middle name to graduate high school with,” Block said. He was interested in genealogy and history, so he looked at his family tree for inspiration.
“I finally chose Ralston,” Block said of his middle name, which is also his uncle’s middle name. “I think it’s a pretty conservative name choice for someone who was able to choose their own name, but I think it goes back to liking my uncle and being close to that side of the family and connecting with history.”
Though he said he feels pretty good about his choice today, Block said he wishes he was the kind of person who would have chosen something a little more unusual.
“But that is not me,” he said.