The Surname Game

One of the biggest parenting dilemmas used to be choosing our kids' first names. We'd spend hours leafing through those thick baby books trying to find just the perfect one to fit our little one. These days that "Name Game" is far more complicated: many parents struggle with choosing the first and last name for their child. And that's because of the dramatic change in the concept of family.

More than half of all children will live in a single parent family at some point in their childhood. Many parents will remarry, and those vows often bring new members to the family (translation: your spouse's kids). But there are other family configurations as well: step families, blended families, adoption, same-sex parents, foster parents, single parents, moms using career names; divorced moms reverting to maiden names, and grandparents raising the kids. Those family tree school projects we did back in grade school sure would be a lot more complicated for some kids these days. "The Name Game Dilemma" has become so common, that the Today show asked me to offer parents advice on a recent segment.

If you are in this situation -- or about to be -- here are a few parenting secrets to help you make the best name choice for your child:

Think ahead. Remember, your child will probably carry that name at least until the age of eighteen (at which time he may choose to legally change it). So fast-forward to those school years and and think through any possible complications that might result from your name decision. Then choose what is best for your child both now and later.

Normalize the name difference early. Toddlers usually learn to say their first names around three years of age. That's also the best time to teach your child his last name and yours. Just be matter-of-fact and brief: "Your name is Sally Smith. Mommy's name is Laura Kelly." Then answer questions as they are asked. Young kids don't need lengthy explanations.

Explain your motive. If you choose to change your last name, explain your decision in simple terms your kids can understand. They can paraphrase your explanation to any who might ask why their name differs from yours. A divorced friend told her kids that she was taking back her maiden name because it was her birth name and had special meaning for her. No further explanation was needed: her kids were satisfied.

Visit the school. Whenever you enroll your child in a new school you must show legal documentation, including your child's birth certificate and guardianship papers. Make sure the documentation accurately reflects the name situation. Also, if your child has any special medical needs (i.e., peanut allergies, asthma) or requires prescribed medication, alert the school nurse and provide necessary emergency contact information for her as well.

Talk to the teacher. Teachers will call students by the legal name listed on their roster. If you want your child to be called by a different name, alert the teacher before your child enters her class. Otherwise you may have a distraught kid on your hands, wondering why the teacher is calling her by the "wrong name."

Alert significant caregivers. Any adult responsible for your child's safety (i.e., babysitters, scout leaders, coaches) should know your child's correct name. In case your child needs medical care, that caregiver needs authorized instruction, medical insurance, emergency contact names and, in some cases, proof of your legal guardianship. It might be a good idea for you to carry that information as well.

Travel with legal documentation. If you plan to leave the country with your children, always carry legal proof of guardianship, passports and birth certificates (even for Canada and Mexico). Custom agents will check those documents.

Have conviction. Whatever name route you choose--giving your child a different last name, hyphenating his parents' names, or allowing him to pull his parents' names from a hat (the only way one family could decide!), you should stick with your choice. If you are comfortable with your decision, chances are your child will be as well.

And if you're wondering if the whole issue really bothers kids, I did a little research on my own and interviewed dozens of children to get their perspectives. "Do you know kids whose last names are different from their parents?" I asked. "Sure," they answered. "Lots of them." Then I'd ask: "Do you think a different last name causes kids any problems?" And almost every child would look up with the same puzzled expression. "Why should it?" they'd respond. "What's the big deal?"

What is the big deal? Today's kids are growing up in a rapidly changing world, and seem to be handling the changes quite well. Safety, belonging, and acceptance are what our kids really care about. So keep that perspective, parents. After all, this is really only about a name.

THE PARENTING SECRET: There are really only three questions all children ask of their families: "Am I safe? Am I loved? Do I belong?" Strong families--regardless of size, income, or names -- provide those needs. So put your parenting energies on the things that count most in raising happy, secure and fulfilled kids.

Michele's latest book is 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids.



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