On the Naming of Children

In which the Elegant Bastard makes the argument than in one very important way, your children are not your children.

I once had a car I named Jake.

Jake was undeniably a presence in the lives of those who knew him. Painted in nine different colours – leftovers found in my buddy’s dad’s auto shop – he was held together by spot welds, wire, duct tape and prayer. He regularly transported whole tribes of us between Montreal and Toronto and while he did so we could see the highway surface passing beneath us, for Jake never really had what could properly be called a floor. He was nonetheless a chick magnet par excellence and when I sold him, I suppose I sold a little part of me. But he finally broke down beyond the powers of mortal intervention and I dumped him in the wrecker’s yard.

And I once had a lobster I named Fred.

This was necessarily a short relationship. Six of us had bought live lobsters and the overall plan was dinner. However, we started racing the ugly but tasty little critters and Fred kept winning. As I was awarded a vodka shot each and every time he won, I cheered him loudly, mightily and with even a bit of a developing slur. When he lost I dumped him in the pot. Fred was a good lobster. I wiped my fingers after with a HandiWipe.

I had every right to give my car and my dinner whatever inoffensive name I wished. But now Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have named their child North, creating the full name “North West”. And I, fervent atheist that I am, would happily bring Hell into existence for the sole purpose of condemning these two egos to its fires. What’s in a name? More than these self-obsessed little minds could ever understand.

“But parents have the right to name a child anything they want.” some might whimper. No they do not. In fact – and here I think most parents would agree with me – parents have no real rights at all. They have only duties, a million of them and more, and all aimed at one goal: the successful emergence of a child that transcends its parents and creates its own life as a happy and autonomous being. Giving the child a name like Jermajesty, Audio Science, Messiah, Moon West, or Hitler does not help that process along.

As hard as it might be for the fame obsessed to grasp, Kahlil Gibran was right when he wrote, “Your children are not your children. /They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself./ They come through you but not from you,/ And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” A child is not a parent’s possession. If it were, it would die when we die or be disposed of in our wills or auctioned off to the highest bidder. And before anyone offers up the argument, “I made my child”, well, no you did not. A child is not a Lego kit or some piece of engineered infrastructure. We, as parents, set the process in motion, but once it’s started, then depending on our belief system, it’s all in the hands of God or biology.

Parents who recognize the essential but nonetheless limited nature of their role tend to choose baby names with care. At some level – rational, emotional, or instinctual – they understand that the naming of the child is really the first step towards its eventual freedom, the first feather in a pair of wings. The act acknowledges the child as a separate being. It is for that reason that I am uncomfortable with suffixes like “Junior” or “the Second” and  “the Third” being attached. Immediately the child’s own name becomes both a potential trap and an on-going challenge – and in the case of a parent’s fame or infamy, a near-insurmountable hurdle. Still, naming a boy John David Smith III is imposing less of a burden than that inflicted by has-been actor Jason Lee on his son, “Pilot Inspecktor”, or by someone called Bear Grylls, apparently famous, who named the first of his litter “Huckleberry” and the second, “Marmaduke”. Out there somewhere is also a little lass saddled with Reignbeau. She will spend the rest of her life hearing people say, “Could you please spell that again?”

A child can easily set aside add-ons like “Junior” and a number, at least in the wider world. Out there, names like John or David do not carry any specific burden, whatever they might mean within the family. In other words, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, JFK zealots, can safely call their son John and see in him a future president. The world sees only John Smith. Calling him John Fitzgerald Kennedy Smith is perhaps two steps over the line.

The same is true of names that have strong associations with religion. Children named Mary, Mohammed, Abraham, Jesus or Fatima will not automatically be compared to the original. If so, I would be in considerable trouble since my names can be associated with one scary arch-angel, an unfortunate saint, three mediocre emperor-kings and at least two well-known serial killers. But names like Messiah, Emperor, Christ and Resurrection are always going to get in a child’s way.

Names can certainly be unusual. Among my happiest friends and acquaintances are people named Kentucky, Paris and Spring. (All of these were middle or third names.) Ideally, however, every child should have the opportunity to find its own path and to create its own successes and failures. We are each supposed to be our own work of art. Burden a child with names like Truth, Bonaparte or Kindness and watch him struggle like a pinned butterfly as everyone he meets wonders how far from the original he has fallen.

Some parents, both celebrities and the not-so-famous, argue that unusual names help their children become independent. If so, it’s the equivalent of tossing a child into a pool in order to teach it to swim (after first tying a weight or two around its neck.) I have trouble with the idea that naming a child “Tu” when its last name is Morrow will somehow promote anything other than a sincere desire to one day hurt the parent! What does a boy named Beretta do when the item he is named for is part of a mass murder. How many times will Vader be asked what it’s like on the Dark Side? How quickly will little Carrion be nicknamed Maggot? And what if Handsome and Pretty are not?

Any parent who names a child Banana, Justice or Kia (in memory of a favorite car) betrays the child in a pathos drenched attempt to validate him or herself. How small must an ego be if it needs to cannibalize the dignity of an infant Other to satisfy its own hunger for attention? The star maker machine needs constant stoking, I agree, but a child is not a fuel rod. Bestowing names like these makes a child a slave, something to be dumped or wiped away when it’s no longer needed.

A woman I met recently has the right idea. She lives in a house she calls Camelot. She talks to her flowers and names them too. Her roses are called Daisy and her daisies Rose. (She loves telling people she has just met that she needs to go out and deadhead the girls.) Everyday she walks her Irish wolfhounds, Elvis and Eiffel. (They have a puppy named England.)

But her children are named George, Mary, Patrick and Dianne.

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