Putting down the parents of North West? That is so May 2013

June 24, 2013

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

How fast things that once caused righteous shock turn normal. (Those of us who just yesterday thought a tiny small-of-back butterfly was the only acceptable tat for a woman are now used to accountants and nurse practitioners with shoulders and necks ablaze with pastel-chalk-like faces.) So many things that were once thought bad for children (gay parents, anyone?) are now almost giddily glorified.

And, finally, some complaints just get boring.

And so it was inevitable that when Kim Kardashian and Kanye West named their daughter North West, that harrumphy sentence I’ve pulled out time and again — “How can parents be so gimmicky about a child?!” — faded faster than I’d expected. And apparently not just for me. Perhaps it was that this unsurprising fake news was eclipsed by close-in-time  stunning real news — the tragic deaths of young reporter Michael Hastings and actor James Gandolfini — knocking both outrage and giggles at the tired reality show Big Reveal out of the water.

Still, timing can’t be the whole reason. The fact that the Twitter sarcasm was notably lame and much of it was actually approving may be telling us that weird “statement” and puns names have reached a sort of genial, patronized middle age, like PTA moms doing karaoke to Eminen records.

But something else may be happening. We might be absorbing the counterintuitive possibility that having an intentionally provocative or gimmicky name isn’t as bad as we thought it was. Here is some soup-to-nuts evidence:

Kids with dumb pun names can be very charismatic and very well-adjusted.

Allow me to speak from personal experience (or play a round of what my dear friend Ben Pesta once called Jewish Geography). I grew up in Southern California during the early Mad Men era, when many of the girls my age were named Linda or Susan or Judy or Barbara. But there were two whose parents, while conventional in other ways, couldn’t resist “pun-ish” names for their daughters: Ginger Snapp and Pepper Salter. At the next high school over were two sisters in the Lear family named Chanda and Lava.

I don’t know about Chanda Lear and Lava Lear, but Ginger’s and Pepper’s names did not hurt them. Ginger was a beautiful and nice (two adjectives that were rarely contiguous at a school that virtually invented Mean Girldom) and an A-student with (most importantly) a perfect flip: every strand of her chin-grazing, light brown hair was as magnificently, synchronistically upturned as a Rockettes finale. Now, recently Ginger told me that I could buy her old name for two cents, that’s how much she’d disliked it; but maybe overcoming is what made her so perfect. She was so well liked, she briefly stole the president of the student body away from his nice girlfriend and no one thought ill of her for it.

Pepper Salter (the daughter of a judge) breezed into our school from Somewhere Else in sophomore year and immediately became the spoke in a wheel of all the sexy, interesting kids, virtually single-handedly creating a groovy elite circle of actually interesting kids and kind of curating them, like Sally Quinn in Washington D.C. in the 80s or Carrie Fisher in 70s Hollywood. She told me recently (age and Facebook leveled my onetime huge fear of her because she was so socially adept and powerful) that her name made her self conscious — and why the hell wouldn’t it? But that wasn’t visible. What was visible, especially from this distance of years, is that her name helped get her the attention to come into a snobby new school and conquer it.

A weird name isn’t etched in stone.

Abbie Hoffman, the founder of the Yippies, and his wife Anita famously named their son america (intentional lower-case “a”); actress Barbara Hershey and actor David Carradine named their son Free. (Hershey herself changed her own last name to Seagull when a seagull was killed on one of her movie sets.) america Hoffman changed his name to Alan; Free Carradine changed his name to Tom. Now, one could fairly ask, “Did they have to go that far?” Still, the power was theirs and they exercised it.

Weird-name-giving parents have very high-toned company. (And I am not talking about Gwynneth Paltrow.)

Dalton Conley, Ph.D., is University Professor at New York University. He holds faculty appointments in NYU’s Sociology Department, School of Medicine, and the Wagner School of Public Service, serves as an adjunct professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). He has previously served as Dean for the Social Sciences and Chair of Sociology at NYU.

Not so shabby, right?

He and his wife named their first child, a daughter, E. That’s right, just the initial. They thought she could supply her own name at some point (worrying that she’d rebel by choosing something conventional like Elizabeth) but as a teenager, she likes her one-letter name. The Conleys weren’t so minimal with their son. They named him Yo — yep, like “Yo! You just whacked my car, moron!” or Yo Yo Ma without the next two syllables. Then, expecting not to have any more children, they threw in a slew of middle names to get everything in, making Yo’s the longest legal name on New York record: Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Conley. (Yo himself supplied the “Knuckles.”)

Conley has said, in a Psychology Today piece: “While my children seem a bit more self-conscious than the average pre-adolescent when introducing themselves or correcting others who mistake them for “Eve” or “Joe,” they have led remarkably taunt-free lives thus far. (Perhaps that’s because an atmosphere of stuffy civility comes with today’s overstructured childhood, as compared to the wild mores of my free-form boyhood.)”

Significantly, he adds: “In fact, some recent studies have even reversed course” from the weird-name-equals-bad outcome conventional wisdom, “suggesting that the restraint that kids with unusual names learn when they are teased leads to better impulse control in all areas of life. While the story on names is far from over, it is indisputable that a first name may convey a first impression, but its power is fleeting. Once a face is put to a name, and certainly once we get to know folks, the name effect disappears.”

When asked why he and his wife chose the names they chose, Conley makes this statement: “Despite the rise in unique names, there has almost always been a suspicion that they are harmful to children. Many parents think that giving children offbeat monikers is akin to scarring their faces—standing out from the crowd is something you want your young ones to do by choice, not by necessity. What’s more, unusual names, goes this reasoning, demonstrate the narcissism of parents who deploy their children like tattoos—mere vehicles for self-expression. Perhaps it was indeed our self-centered, artistic aspirations that led us to give our offspring these labels of sorts. But at the time we thought we were bequeathing to them our values of individuality, free choice, and the questioning of social norms. Perhaps it was also an unconscious social experiment: We forced our children’s teachers and peers to see them as individuals by virtue of their names.”

So, see, Kim and Kanye? You can relax now (as if you ever weren’t). And don’t feel so bad if you didn’t quite get the buzz you expected. It’s for the better – for all of us, I guess (since you’re riding a trend – “unique naming” — that’s still in high gear).

But, mostly, for your daughter’s sake.

 

 

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Melinda Henneberger · June 20, 2013