What Can Middle School Teach Us About Baby Naming?

Oct 25th 2012

My middle-school daughter recently made an observation about her classmates. She told me that everybody is trying hard to fit in, worried about seeming "weird"...AND that everybody wants to stand out and be seen as unique. It's pretty easy to get stressed out when you're constantly striving to achieve two opposite goals.

That quandary sounded awfully familiar to me. Not just from my own middle-school memories, but from a slice of adulthood that's near and dear to my heart. How often have I described the elusive dream baby name of our generation: the name that everybody knows and loves, but nobody uses?

"Everybody knows and loves" = popular and fits in.
"Nobody uses" = unique and stands out.

In other words, we too are looking for the intersection of totally popular and totally unpopular. And just like the middle schoolers, we're tying ourselves in knots over it.

Are we doomed to a life of eternal seventh grade? I don't think so, because many of the social pressures that weigh on us in middle school do ease up over time. And as adults, we can look back at that time of our lives -- or watch our own kids navigating it -- and understand that there are better and worse ways to stand out and fit in. Suppose we apply some of that hard-earned wisdom to ourselves?

Lesson 1: Don't Be Afraid to Be Yourself
Few of us make it through our tween and teen years without making this mistake. We turn our backs on something we really, really want because we're afraid of what other people might think.

Maybe you skipped an event that you were looking forward to because somebody said it was "for little kids." Maybe you stopped talking to that nice boy who really seemed to like you because your friends thought he was a nerd. Maybe you didn't try out for cheerleading because that was for airheads. (Anti-conformist pressure can be just as limiting as conformist pressure.) Maybe, even now, you can still feel the echoes of regret.

The baby naming lesson? Don't be too quick to abandon the names you truly love. There will always be somebody who doesn't like an unconventional name choice, so one stray internet comment shouldn't ruin that dream name for you. On the flip side, sometimes being true to yourself means making the choice that speaks to your heart, even if it's "too popular" or "ordinary." Sophia is still a beautiful name, #1 in America or not.

Lesson 2: Don't Be a Slave to Trends
The juniors clothing department is an ever-churning trend engine. It's easy to get swept up in the machine, jumping on whatever's new whether the trends suit you or not. Before you know it, you find yourself with a closet full of clothes that are soooo five minutes ago, and a photo stream full of "what was I thinking" looks.

Since your child can't shop for a new name each season, you want to make sure that the name you choose has some staying power. That doesn't mean you have to ignore fashion altogether, though. Consider that Farrah and Bethany were equally popular and fashionable in 1977, but only one disappeared in a flash.

How can you tell whether the name you're considering is a fleeting trend or the cusp of a more lasting style? There's no perfect crystal ball, but try asking yourself:

- Would this name have sounded just as good to me five years ago?
- Did it suddenly become a hit out of nowhere?
- Did a celebrity debut it to the whole country at once?
- Does it particularly suit my family more than others in some way? (In clothes, if a trendy style is perfect for your shape and coloring, it can stay a wardrobe favorite for years. In names, a personal or cultural connection can give a name a lasting meaning beyond fashion.)

Lesson 3: Smart Is Cooler Than You Think
Hey, grownups! In your office, is everybody trying to avoid looking too smart, and angling to be seen smoking cigarettes in micro-mini skirts?

I thought not. If there's one rule of middle school that gets totally pulverized in the adult world, it's the one that places brains at the bottom of the social pecking order. Smart adults generally rise to the top.

As for what we call "attracting the wrong kind of attention" in middle school...it's not that adults don't want to be edgy or sexy. It's that we develop an appreciation of situational style. We're all for sexy on Saturday night, but smart on Monday morning.

Applying these lessons to the baby-naming world, may I suggest it's time to take a fresh look at nicknames?

This generation of parents has tried to take take firm control of kids' everyday names, insisting on the full formal versions or carefully choosing names without obvious nicknames. But isn't that like wearing a permanent business suit, or party dress? Rather than choosing a party-all-night name, or going crazy with the spelling, why not give your child the flexibility of a smart, serious name with a nickname that walks on the wild side?


October 25, 2012 12:39 PM

Love this article, Laura! I hated my name as a kid (Valerie Rose) because I was at the tail end of the Valerie trend and so it felt dated, and Rose was nowhere on anyone's radar, but now I love it, and am so glad I didn't change it to something momentarily trendy.

By Amy3
October 25, 2012 1:57 PM

As the mom of a new middle schooler, I found this poignant and hilarious at the same time. How funny that what's true for middle schoolers, also holds for baby-namers.

As for me, Amy was a dime-a-dozen name when I was growing up so I didn't like it because it was *too* popular. Over time, I came to realize that, popular or not, it really is a great name and it suits me perfectly.

October 29, 2012 5:48 PM

Just wanted to post the names of my grand children that I believe are unique

K'mi Nixzmarie Bell

Chad Wesley

Dai LaRose--pronounced (Day)

Nigh Tulip---wanted to name her Knight but my daughter thought it sounded like a boy name

Oh I named them all.  What do you think

November 15, 2012 3:13 AM

This is a pretty interesting post that you have posted on your blog and the observation that your daughter has made is very interesting and relevant indeed. I have believed that children of middle school are keen on observing. This emphasizes that the children are the people who observe others more than the elders and learning comes irrespective of one’s age.

December 9, 2012 12:29 AM

I agree. In my friend's 6th grade comm arts class there is a Kylie, Kylee, and a Kaylea. Its ridiculous!