Family Matters

Baby Name Game: How a Name Can Affect Your Child’s Future

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All parents like to think that their baby is unique — the cutest, brightest, most engaging infant ever born. And one way parents seek to reflect their child’s uniqueness is by bestowing them with equally distinctive, sometimes weird, names.

How best to ensure your child’s moniker is special? Google, of course.

Last week, the New York Times wrote about how parents-to-be routinely use the search engine to evaluate baby names. Worried about their unborn child’s future digital footprint, parents are also using online searches to vet the spellings of names they’re considering. “A quick search can help ensure that a child is not saddled with the name of a serial killer, pornography star or sex offender,” wrote the Times. One couple shunned “Kalia” in favor of their own creation, “Kaleya,” after the former popped up images of busty women in thongs.

Parents have struggled with what to name Junior for eons, and for good reason. According to Judaism’s Talmudic tradition, a baby’s name is its first gift. Though it has always been an important decision, the Times suggests the digital age has made it even knottier:

[W]hat’s new is the level of complexity that Google and other search engines have brought to the name game. Some parents want names that are unique so their child will rise to the top of future search results. Others want names that are uncommon enough to bestow uniqueness, but not so exotic that they would be considered weird on the playground. A rare few want their child’s name to get lost in a virtual crowd…

Uniqueness seems to be a primary motive and has spurred an unspoken competition among parents to find the most original names, said Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, a guide for selecting a name. “Parents thinking of a baby name will type it in and say: ‘Oh, no, it’s taken. There are already three others with that name.'”

If the scientific research on the topic is any indication, parents may be doing the right thing by stressing over name selection. Names can have profound and lasting implications over the course of a person’s life. “Name your kids what you love, but be aware there are consequences,” says David Figlio, an economics and education professor at Northwestern University who has researched the effect of names on children.

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In one study, Figlio analyzed the effects on children with so-called “linguistically low-status” names. Across all races and ethnicities, there are certain letter combinations that are more likely to be given by high-school-drop-out moms. Among white families, Alexandra may be spelled Alekzandra; the “kz” combo is almost never seen in middle-class families. For African Americans, it may mean use of the prefix “Sha” rather than the more highly regarded “La.”

Figlio found that teachers treat kids with low-status names differently: they’re more likely to be referred for special education, less likely to be recognized as gifted and they perform poorer on tests, according to research published in 2005 by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Names may even help predict career paths. When Figlio studied sisters who were both good at math, he discovered that those with more linguistically feminine names were more likely to shy away from math and science and stick with humanities classes compared to their siblings with linguistically androgynous names. If you’re set on your daughter Anastasia becoming a doctor, you’ll have to be extra vigilant to fight any cultural stereotypes. “She may become the English major and her sister, Jordan, may become the bio major,” says Figlio. “That’s happening at rates that are too big to ignore.”

And think twice before you give your son a girlie-sounding name: boys with names such as Ashley, Shannon, Jamie and Courtney tend to have more behavior problems in middle school, according to Figlio’s 2006 study in Education Finance and Policy.

You could always look to pop culture for inspiration, as did 50% of parents surveyed by, which just released its list of the 100 most popular baby names for 2011 (Sophia and Aiden topped the girls’ and boys’ lists, respectively). Nearly 1 in 5 parents surveyed refused to succumb to the cult of celebrity, however, electing instead to go maverick. They said they’d consider inventing a name or plucking one from the dictionary to ensure their child would stand out.

MORE: What’s in a Baby Name: 2011’s Most Popular Monikers

That’s not a bad idea, says Figlio, although his prime recommendation — each year, he fields about 100 emails from parents seeking advice on what to name their kids — is to bequeath a name that’s both resonant and meaningful.

That’s what my husband and I tried to do when choosing Hebrew names for our three kids. In doing so, we’ve all but guaranteed that they won’t find their names emblazoned on a rack of personalized mugs in the local toy store, but we’ve also given them names that we hoped would capture their essence — “spring,” “song” and “my light.”

As a fringe benefit, we seem to have also secured somewhat of a singular identity for them. Even though I know other people with my kids’ names, it’s almost certain that they’ll be the only ones of their ilk in class. (Of course, the Times notes, there’s never any guarantee, citing the case of a Jewish lesbian couple who intentionally selected the Hebrew names Asher and Levi for their boys after making sure they didn’t appear on the Social Security Administration’s most-popular list, only to run into another Asher being parented by two different Jewish lesbian moms.)

Selecting a unique name is paramount for today’s parents, says Linda Murray, editor-in-chief of, but with 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, unique can be hard to come by. BabyCenter does what it can to help, offering up the most popular names as a reference — so you’ll know what not to name your baby. “We put the list out as a service,” says Murray, “so parents know what other parents are doing.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.