When is Name Stealing Wrong?

I recently read the lament of a mother whose pregnant sister-in-law was considering a name very similar to her daughter’s. The names were very similar (think Ann and Anna) but not identical. The sister-in-law had asked how they would feel if she used “Ann.” She had started a very specific name theme with her older three children and the name in question fit the theme and matched in style with her older children’s names. The two families, according to “Anna’s” mother, lived far away from one another and interacted in person only occasionally. Nevertheless, she was offended that her in laws would consider “Ann.” It’s an issue I see come up very frequently, and I have a pretty strong opinion on it: you don’t own your child’s name, and you don’t get to pick what other people name their children.

I understand that parents have put a lot of thought into their child’s name. It can be frustrating to deliberate for hours on the perfect name, find one you love and think is unique, only to have someone you know pick the same name a year later. Parents feel ownership of a name they’ve chosen- but they don’t, in reality, own the name. In all likelihood, they’re not the first to use the name they’ve picked, and they almost certainly won’t be the last. In the case I mentioned above, the name being stolen really was as common and classic as Ann/Anna- definitely not something either mother can claim as theirs. But even if you choose something you feel you really did invent, like Brylynn or Dashonte or Mailani- you still probably aren’t the first to use it. Most modern American parents have grown up in the same culture, around the same time (if you’re having a baby now, that was probably the 80s and 90s). We have shared tastes and values. It’s genuinely difficult to come up with a name that is truly unique.

And I know that there’s a potential for confusion in families, especially when a last name is shared. But I think that problem is exaggerated- I know a pair of cousins a year apart who grew up in neighboring houses and are both named Briana. It’s never been a problem for them. As children, they loved being “the Brianas.” There’s a long tradition of names being passed through families, especially for boys- it’s not been historically unusual for a Grandpa John to have a son named John and one or more grandsons named John (after grandpa), all with the same last name.

I think sometimes the issue in these cases isn’t really the name. Names can be a stand-in for bigger relationship problems. If my sister-in-law wore a long white dress to my wedding, got engaged at my birthday party, announced her pregnancy on the day I graduated from college, etc., I’d be pretty upset if she announced that she planned to use my child’s name for herself. But that’s not me having a problem about names- that’s me having a problem with my sister-in-law’s attention seeking and selfish pattern of behavior. And that’s not an issue that a name will fix.

(Note: Fortunately, none of those things have really happened to me. I don’t really have a monstrous sister-in-law.)

But even if that horrible sister-in-law wanted to use that name, there’s a principle I believe in strongly: no one has the right to name another person’s child. No matter how horrid she may be, it’s her child and her choice. She may be a jerk for not considering my feelings. She may be inviting confusion or familial discord. But she is fundamentally allowed to like the same name I do. And really, it doesn’t much effect me if she does.

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