Sunday, February 5, 2012

Poetry in the Raw

I do occasionally mention that I have children.  In the spirit of not putting personal information about one’s family out onto the Internet, I have refrained from mentioning their names.  However, their names are more than just handles for easy identification; they’re a sign of another parenting principle that I and my partner believe strongly in.

Now, typically when I write a post and tag it with “parenting” (such as this one), I’ll happily admit that I’m trying to convince you that my way is the right way.  (And, if you don’t like that, look up at the title of the blog again.)  So I feel compelled to point out that this one is different.  This time, I’m saying “look, this is the way I do it, but it may not be right for you.”  It’s okay to disagree sometimes, you know.  That’s what makes the world such a beautiful place.

So, these are the names of my children: the elder son is Random, the younger son is Perrin, and the daughter who is yet to be is Merrick.  The links will explain where the names come from, if you’re interested.  I’ve tried to find places to link to that are as spoiler-free as possible, but be careful where you click on those pages, and certainly don’t read the “Chronology” on the Perrin Aybara page if you’re worried about that sort of thing.

I’m sure you’ve cottoned on the what these names have in common.  Yes, they’re all fictional characters, and, more subtly, none of them are series protagonists, although they all rise to prominence in their stories.  Actually, that’s more of a coincidence—we picked the names mainly for their euphony, and of course their primary characteristic: they’re all pretty unusual names.  In fact, one might suspect that I had deliberately gone somewhere to check out the 1,000 most popular baby names for the past 12 years and made sure ours weren’t on them.  (And, of course, one would be right.)

But why?  I am certainly no celebrity: I am not Gwyneth Paltrow, nor Penn Jillette, nor Robert Rodriguez (though I quite like “Apple” and “Rocket” ... “Moxie CrimeFighter” may be a bit much though).  So I don’t even have the excuse of being rich and crazy.  Perhaps I should leave the unusual baby names to the stars; after all, as that link points out, “the richer the parents are, the less likely you are to be teased.”  My kids don’t have that protection.

In fact, the assumption that unusual names will be a burden to a child seems to be a common one.  Casual Internet comments and Saturday Night Live skits aside, there is serious research that tells us that unique names are bad for our kids.  Of course, the great thing about research like that is that it nearly always works both ways: for every article I can find telling me that “when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism” or that ”a 1960s study of psychiatric records found that those with unusual names were more likely to be diagnosed psychotic,” I can find another that tells me that “names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person”* or that “young adults today report that they feel buoyed by an unorthodox appellation.”

Should I try to draw some conclusion from the fact that the author quoted in the first article, as well as the author of the second, are both named Jean, while the auhor of the third is Carlin, and the fourth was penned by a man with a middle name of Marion?  Should I furthermore wonder why that second Jean (full name “Jean-Vincent”) now chooses to go by “JV”?  I can recall hearing some author speaking on NPR a few years ago, telling me that children needed stability and wanted to fit in, and that unusual names jeopardized that.  Spoken like a true “Bob,” I thought.

No, I should probably not engage in such speculation.  Like any debate that appears to be black and white, the truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle.  As one of those articles points out:

No one can predict whether a name will be consistent with a child’s or a teen’s view of herself. The name could be ethnic, unique or white-bread, but if it doesn’t reinforce her sense of self, she will probably be unhappy with it and may even feel alienated from parents or peers because of it. An Annika with iconoclastic taste will be happy with her name, but a Tallullah who longs for a seat at the cheerleader’s table may feel that her name is too weird.

In other words, we could be doing our kids a favor by giving them unique names, or screwing them up, and the exact same thing is true if we give them common names.  The way we look at it, they can always choose to be Randy, Perry, and Mary later in life if that suits them better.  At least this way they have a choice.

Plus, one can never predict future uniqueness.  I’m sure that if you were an expecting parent in 1984 who saw Splash, you probably thought that “Madison” was a pretty cool-sounding, unique name for your soon-to-be baby girl.  Little would you guess that it would suddenly enter the top 1,000 most popular names at #625 the very next year, and eventually reach the top ten in 1997, where it remains to this day.  (In fact, it was one of the top three girls’ names from 2000 to 2006.)  For that matter, we were just informed this past week that, not only is our elder son no longer our pediatrcian’s only “Random,” he’s actually now one of three (the oldest of the three, at least, so he can still claim to be the “original,” for whatever that’s worth).

So far it appears that my firstborn is happy with his name.  He’s just barely a teenager at this point, but he has resisted all efforts to be made into a “Randy,” and he always gently but firmly corrects the common mishearing of “Brandon.”  Whether other kids make fun of him for his name or not, I don’t know—I suspect not as much as they might have, since he’s never attended public school.  The schools where Random has gone are filled with names of kids that make his stand out less: Sasha’s and Connor’s and Thor’s and Skyler’s.  But, even in public schools, some of those articles suggest, a combination of increasing ethnic diversity and less social emphasis on conformity means that unusual names are not the rich fodder for teasging they once were:

“Kids today are used to a variety of names, so it is almost too simple for them to make fun of each other for that,” says Taffel. “Cruelty is more sophisticated now.”

Comforting words indeed.

But you know what the most telling quote from any of these articles is, and the one that I think sums up my own parental view on the matter is?

If parents give a child an offbeat name, speculates Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University, “they are probably outliers willing to buck convention, and that [parental trait] will have a greater effect on their child than does the name.”

That’s me in a nutshell.  I don’t want to give my children names that help them conform, because I don’t want them to conform.  I want them to stand out.  I want them to feel as if they have a built-in leg-up on being recognized for their unique qualities; we often tell Random that he’s the “best Random in the whole world,” and we can tell each of our children the same thing without any accusation of favoritism, and not even that big a chance of being incorrect.  We’ve always taught our kids to think for themselves, not to blindly follow instructions—even though we regret that sometimes.  But our children are intelligent, articulate, and forthright, capable of high-order reasoning, with impressive vocabularies for their ages.  And, so far at least, they like their names.

I’ve written before about treating my children like people, and I closed that blog post with a quote from Frank Zappa, a guy who named his children Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva.  Obviously I feel a kinship with the man, even if I don’t care for his music.  His quotes on parenthood are numerous and inspiring (at least to me), and I grace you with another one here.

The more boring a child is, the more the parents, when showing off the child, receive adulation for being good parents—because they have a tame child-creature in their house.

My children are anything but boring.  And it all starts with their names.

* “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes.  Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

** The title of this week’s post is a quote from W.H. Auden.  The full quote is: “Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”

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