The social worker and adoption agency director strongly recommended this mom rename her 1.5-year-old daughter post-adoption, but she refused. Experts explain both sides of the name change debate.
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March 7, 2019

When it comes to naming your child, there are so many things to consider. For some adoptive parents, though, the decision is more complicated: What do you do when your child already has a name?

For Susan Davis*, the choice is easy: She's adopting a 1.5-year-old girl named Lena* from Poland, and despite the suggestions of a social worker and the director of the adoption agency, she will not be changing her daughter's name.

Davis posted to the adoption section of Reddit last week about her situation. "The adoption agency encourages me to rename our little girl and I'm having a hard time doing this," she explained. "I think her name is lovely and it really suits her. Honestly, I'll give her a middle name as she doesn't have one, but I'm really not wanting to change her first name."

Davis, who is an adoptee herself, said that her parents named her because she was adopted as an infant. She wanted to know, though, for a 1.5-year-old, if "anyone [could] give me any ideas on why I should or shouldn't change her name?"

The responses, mostly from other parents, were almost all in agreement: Davis didn't need to change her daughter's name. If she liked Lena, and the name didn't have any negative associations for her daughter, then why should she rename the little girl?

Davis told that the social worker helping with Lena's adoption "was pretty adamant about us changing her name and continued to encourage us to do so. They kept bringing up the need to bond with our daughter."

But as Davis said, "We will be just fine bonding with her, we can skip this step."

Some children "have been in terrible situations and associate their names with negative things," Davis acknowledged, but this isn't the case for Lena.

"My daughter was named by staff, this is the same staff that has loved her and cared for her her whole life," she said. "They have been her family. So changing her name is not something I'd consider."

If Lena had a different name with "some sort of negative connotation, or I felt would impact her negatively in the future, I would absolutely consider changing it," said Davis. But to change her name just for the sake of changing it? Davis didn't want to do that, and eventually, the social worker and director of the adoption agency stopped trying to change her mind.

While the adoption agency Davis worked with encouraged her to change her daughter's name, not all agencies agree with this practice.  "We do our best to educate adoptive families about the cultural naming practices in the country and region their child is coming from," said Marissa Robello, LMSW, CSWA, a clinical social worker at Holt International, an adoption agency in Eugene, Oregon (not affiliated with Davis' adoption experience). "We suggest families consider factors like the age of the child and whether or not it is the name that the child is used to responding to (which may be a nickname rather than their legal name). Children who are coming from a foreign institution may be given a generic name based on the region or time of year, or they may have a name selected for them by a caregiver or other important person in their early lives."

Though she encourages families to make naming decisions that are best for their child, Robello explained that many parents appreciate the process of naming their child and see it as the beginning of their lifelong commitment to them. "Professionally, we refer to this concept as 'claiming' and it's an important early step in the attachment process."

Lauren Jiang, LMSW, the director of permanency & client services at Spence-Chapin, a nonprofit organization based in New York City that offers adoption services to families and children agreed. "There are many considerations when choosing to maintain your child's birth name or to select a new name for your child," she said. One of the biggest factors in this decision is the age of the child at the time of the adoption.

"When adopting an older youth, he or she may be old enough to be involved in the conversation of whether to maintain or change his or her name," Jiang said.

Ray Guarendi, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and the author of "Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It" agrees with Jiang that when adopting older children, they should be involved in the naming conversation.

"It's all a personal decision between the parents and the child, depending on the child's age," he said. "I would say this to parents, though, the older the kid, if you have the discussion, keep in mind that some kids are probably going to be agreeable just because they might be a little insecure about their new situation."

Guarendi, who himself is the father of ten adopted children, said many well-meaning parents are "overthinking" the whole thing. "There is no 'psychologically correct' way to do this," he said. "We changed two of our children's names—one was two when we adopted her and one was three when we adopted him."

Again, though, this was a personal decision for Guarendi family. Dr. Guarendi said there's "no downside" to not changing a younger adopted child's name, explaining, "There's no thread of identity which essentially says, my name was this and I kept that name, therefore I don't identify with my adoptive family. That doesn't happen."

Some parents will keep their adopted child's birth name, some will use it as a middle name, and some will change it entirely. What really matters is that the child is loved, and with little Lena, it's obvious that's the case.

"My friends and family all have the same mindset," said Davis. "We want her to feel loved for exactly who she is—including her name."

* The names and some identifying details have been changed.