Can Your Name Seal Your Fate?
Parents obsess over baby name choices, but do those choices really matter? Can the names we give our children really affect their life paths?
That question is ostensibly asked by this promotional video for the new film "Freakonomics" (NSFW). Unfortunately, the video doesn't seem interested in the answer. It's too busy dreaming up nasty stereotypes and giggling about them to actually talk name science. (For more on the way name stories are used to promote racial stereotypes, check out this series of posts from the Name Lady's sister site, BabyNameWizard.com.)
Let's take the question back from the fantasy world where naming a girl Temptress seals her fate as a floozy -- or where the name Angel guarantees a baby will sleep through the night. If only.
To find the ways names do shape our lives, you have to look beyond literal meanings. Names are much more than words. They pack a world of social information into a few simple letters. They send complex signals to the people we meet, and to ourselves. And each year, researchers find more evidence that those signals do have some impact.
On the most serious level, names can set negative expectations. Research has shown that kids with the type of names associated with poor, uneducated parents are at a disadvantage in school -- even compared to their own siblings with more upscale names. Other studies have found disadvantages for students whose names are considered unattractive, and lower math achievement for girls with distinctly feminine names.
That's the big stuff. The effect of names shows up in subtler ways, too. For instance, we're all drawn to things that resemble ourselves, including our names. Incredible as it may sound, researchers have found that a Louis is more likely than other people to move to St. Louis, and a Dennis to become a dentist. Recent studies have suggested that even our initials can make a difference. For instance, kids whose names start with A may get better grades on average than kids with C and D names.
But wait a second. Does that mean Annabella will do well in math class because she's an A, or badly because her name sounds so feminine? And how did all those Dennises make it to dental school if they were destined to pull Ds? Where does all of this research point for a name-choosing parent?
My advice: The signals names send are so limitless and contradictory that tracking down every possible variable is a fool's errand. Instead, try approaching it like nutrition. Amid the constant whirlwind of new dietary research, the standard common-sense guidelines still hold. Eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and you should be fine. Similarly, a spellable, pronounceable name that gets a positive reaction from the people you admire remains your safest naming bet.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.