Most parents spend a significant amount of time considering their baby’s name, but it’s not uncommon for parents to have second thoughts about a kid’s moniker. Perhaps mom had a belated change of opinion about her love of Twilight well after the name Renesmee was printed on a birth certificate, or a family name took on a particularly negative second meaning following a particularly heated political exchange with a namesake uncle one drunken Thanksgiving.
The good news is also the bad news: Nothing is permanent. Names can change. It’s an inconvenient legal process that may necessitate multiple inconvenient trips to government offices, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or not worth the time. The question is when does this change become a problem for the kid? Babies don’t care, but young Rocketship Fahrenheit Lopez is gonna be very confused if people start suddenly calling him Pete.
There are no extensive, conclusive reports about when a child begins to associate their name with themselves, but Dr. Amy Needham, director of the Vanderbilt University Infant Learning Lab, says “Infants’ understandings of words that people say (i.e., their receptive vocabulary) tends to precede their ability to actually say words (i.e., their productive vocabulary) by at least a few months.”
Referencing the study Some Beginnings of Word Comprehension in 6-Month-Olds by Ruth Tincoff and Peter W. Jusczyk of the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychology, Needham points out that babies are able to associate the words for “daddy” and “mommy” and other familial terms by 6 months of age, even if they aren’t able to actually say them. So it does stand to reason that children are able to associate their names with themselves at an early age as well.
But it’s not until a child begins to associate themselves with pronouns that a stronger sense of self is developed.
“Most children by the age of two can say personal pronouns like ‘me’ or ‘mine,’” says Dr. Michael Lewis, distinguished professor and director of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Institute for the Study of Child Development. “They can also recognize themselves in mirrors, and show sufficient cognition to sort of understand ‘that’s me.’”
So that means a child has a couple years before they really begin to self-identify. Once a child begins to associate themselves with a given name, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve permanently identified themselves with the term. Names are, after all, just terms. Just as a child comes to associate his or herself with a loving nickname, so too can they begin to associate “I” and “me” with other names.
For example, if a child is named after a beloved family member, a parent can still opt to call a child by their middle name.
“Learning one’s name is pretty easy. You don’t call out to your child ‘hey chid.’ We use personal names, and very soon the child comes to recognize that name. A child can do that within the first year of life,” says Lewis. “If parents want to name somebody after someone, they (can) keep that name but they don’t refer to the child by that name. That doesn’t cause a problem.”
Lewis says it’s not until 15-24 months that a child comes to recognize themselves in a mirror and begins to develop a more established sense of selves. Names are just part of the bigger puzzle. A child might opt to adopt a nickname as their full-time name at any given point, while a parent could choose to keep a child’s birth name but refer the child to as something different at different parts of life.
What a parent chooses to call a child — given name, full name, middle name, whatever — can change at any given moment. Once a child has established a sense of self, this wouldn’t cause any confusion whatsoever. And until then, a name is just sound.
Whether the name change is colloquial or established through court documents is purely up to the parent to decide.
“Names are a part of us, but they are not what defines us. I can’t possibly see confusion or disruption by naming a child by a middle name or a nickname,” says Lewis.