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What's in a name?: Parents’ choice helps child form identity, learn language

Fargo -- Fauntel Deshayes has never found her name in a baby name book, and she’s used to being called “Mr. Fauntel” or “Shantelle.”

Most of the time, the 32-year-old doesn’t correct people, preferring to laugh it off.

“It takes more energy to have to correct them,” she says. “It’s kind of funny to me.”

The U.S. Social Security Administration recently released its annual list of the top baby names for 2012, and unsurprisingly to Fauntel, was not on the list of 1,000. Jacob, Mason and Ethan top the list for boys’ names, and Sophia, Emma and Isabella for girls’ names.

Fauntel, of Moorhead, knows only two people who share her name – her paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. She’s been told the name has French roots, and someone said it means “rose” in a Native American language, but Fauntel’s still unsure of its exact origin.

Although she doesn’t know its meaning, Fauntel says her name makes her feel unique. The name was coveted by other family members, and Fauntel was the one to carry on the moniker.

“I’ve always felt like it made me special or stand out,” she says. “I felt kind of empowered by my name.”

Unique names can give a child a sense of individuality, says Barb Chromy, a counselor at The Village Family Service Center. She says the child’s family plays a role in how they perceive their name.

“If we are very positive about our child’s name, optimistic, and if we allow some flexibility, names can be what we want them to be,” she says.

Culture and geographic location can affect names, too, Chromy says.

In more metropolitan areas, unique names may not stand out so much, while in smaller communities, a unique name could be a target for teasing, she says.

John Rieke, of Bismarck, says his middle name, Bersvend, was challenging to explain to classmates as a child, so he generally kept the name “under wraps.” It’d create a conversation when classmates saw it on paperwork.

“They’d see my name and say, ‘What the heck is that,’ ” John recalls.

Bersvend is a Norwegian name that means “mountain fellow,” and it’s been in John’s family for nearly 400 years.

Growing up, John says he had a strong sense of his ancestry because the name connected him to his maternal grandfather.

“That type of family identity was instilled in me at a very young age and is still there,” he says.

Names are significant in a child’s life because it starts building their self-esteem and identity, says Julie Kloster, a social worker at The Village Family Service Center and Lutheran Social Services.

“Naming is part of claiming, valuing and honoring a child,” she says.

Some cultures pick names that signify the path they want the child to take in life or names that honor a loved one, Kloster says.

Beth Rohn-Habhegger, of rural Davenport, N.D., named her son Rhone to carry on her maiden name. She chose the ancestral spelling of the name because she thought people might pronounce it “Ron” instead of “Rh-own.”

So far, 2-year-old Rhone is embracing his name, often introducing himself as “Rhone-y Baloney,” Beth says.

Besides being culturally significant, a child’s name can shape their language, says Erin Conwell, an assistant psychology professor at North Dakota State University.

It’s one of the most frequent words that they hear in the first few years of life, and it’s the word they use to “chop up a sentence,” Conwell says.

She likens the process to learning a second language – words in a sentence seem to string together quickly, so it can be difficult to separate individual words. Babies can’t find the edges of the words either, Conwell says.

“If you know a few words, you can figure out where the other words are. Infants do the same thing,” she explains.

The length of a name doesn’t matter since the child’s ability to pick out their name is based on the frequency they hear it, she says.

“It’s not as though Emma is easier than Jacob to get out of the string because they hear it all the time,” Conwell says. “You hear parents, especially with really new babies, just coo the babies name over and over again. That makes it pretty familiar pretty early on.”

With all the advice about naming that parents can receive, social worker Kloster says parents should keep one key tip in mind.

“Parents should have a reason for choosing the name,” she says, “even if it’s simply, ‘I just loved that name.’ ”

The Village’s Chromy and Kloster share more tips for successful name choosing.

-Make a child-centric choice.

Ultimately, the child is the one who has to live with this name, so parents should keep that in mind when they’re considering names, Kloster says.

-Be open-minded.

Parents should try to be open minded and let children modify their names if they wish, Chromy says.

Her daughter, Dionne, prefers to go by “D.”

-Think nicknames and initials.

Say the name out loud, think of possible nicknames and write the initials, Kloster says.

It can help parents figure out if a name is right for their child or if initials and nicknames could be susceptible to teasing.

-Be assertive.

If parents are set on a name but other family members don’t like it, or if they want to take their time naming the child, parents need to stand their ground, Chromy says.

“Be assertive and take your time so that you choose the name that is most appropriate for your child and your family,” she says.

Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

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