Names of Children Matter – More Than You May Think

Nov 14, 2010

So, I realize that the children that we already have will not necessarily benefit from this article. However, for those of you planning on having more children in the future, you may find this new information helpful in your name choosing process. For those of you with plans of keeping your family the size that it is, it will just be interesting reading!

I recognize that this article may elicit strong reactions as the names that we choose for our children are often very personal and tied to emotional strings. However, I am merely trying to point out recent research showing that names are extremely important in shaping a child’s future. Many parents have shared that they were not aware of the implications a name can have on a child, and might have chosen differently had they known.

There have been related studies in the past, discussing the importance of perception. The most famous of the studies documenting the “Pygmalion Effect”, as it is sometimes called, is in the school system. Teachers were given randomly assigned students of all intellectual levels in their classes but told that their students were either the brightest and best or that they were the lower scoring students and would likely struggle with the curriculum. Not surprisingly, the teachers with the “smart” students rated and scored their pupils very highly and the teachers with the “struggling” students reported lower scores and ratings. These students were essentially equal, but self-fulfilling prophecy created a perception based on what expectation had been created.

So, we know the Pygmalion phenomenon exists, and now it seems that it is expanding into the arena of names as well. Recent studies have been released on the effect that a name has on personality, success, opportunities and impression. The first of the results indicate that more parents are becoming aware of the power of a child’s name, and choosing accordingly. This is evidenced in recent U.S. birth records where first names such as President, Lawyer, Doctor, Washington, and Lincoln were observed.

Secondly, results show that the spelling of a name affects the perceived personality of an individual even without meeting them. In the study, participants were given the name, age, and occupation of hypothetical individuals. They were then asked to choose five adjectives to describe the person based on that information alone. What they found was that traditional names were the most highly interpreted, with personality traits consistently more positive than unique or unfamiliar names. Further, the same name spelled differently yielded varied results as well. “Catherine, 42, bank teller” was given a far more positive impression than “Kathryn, 42, bank teller”.

Finally, MIT and the University of Chicago found that job applicants with names that sounded ethnic got overlooked when it came to the hiring process. The researchers sent out 5,000 fake resumes, and resumes with names that were difficult to recognize or pronounce were less likely to get calls from prospective employers than their “Anglo-sounding counterparts”. Additionally, qualifications seemed to have little impact. Some studies have shown that ethnic names get upwards of a 50% less callback rate than “white” sounding names.

While on some level I think that fact is frustrating and bothersome, it is important to recognize how the world in which we live and the realities of life can affect our children. On a somewhat related topic, studies have also shown that attractive people are consistently given more and better opportunities in their lives, based solely on their appearance. So, as unfair as all of this may be, what do we do with this information? We certainly can do no wrong by choosing a name that we think will assist our children in achieving their goals and dreams. We might do them some good by envisioning what their name will “communicate”, or the impression their name will give as an adult.

Most of the time, I think we choose names based on preference of the sound or spelling. Fewer and fewer parents are choosing names for what they mean or because it was a family name. There was a time when children were born without names and named after their personality manifested itself. Another fading tradition was naming children maiden names from within the family. An additional option was a name based on the profession in the family. We have moved away from those traditions, and are now faced with the evolving reality that names do indeed cultivate personality and impact success.

Of course, at the end of the day, regardless of what we call our children, we do our best to help them become the best adults that they can be. I think it is important to acknowledge the role that their name can play in that journey, however, and make sure that we give them the best shot at achieving all they are capable of.

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