ABC News and Good Morning America recently presented a piece called “Messiah, King Rise in Popularity for Baby Names“. Within, they quote psychologist Jean Twenge, who claims that the numbers prove our culture is on a narcissistic bend. Her outlook is so extreme that I believe that this is all sensationalism meant to stir up publicity for a book she is promoting, because a well-reasoned discussion can easily be had to negate her claims. (For instance, maybe she’s just mad her name is Jean.)
Messiah has been in news recently when a judge ordered a mother to change this name, given to her son. The ruling was of course thrown out (this is America). 811 total children were given this name in the USA in 2012. While Messiah as a name feels somewhat recent and sheds light on our taboos, this style of naming isn’t new. In Latin-influenced cultures, the name Jesus has been used for quite some time, for example. Other names we’ve come to accept include Angel, Heaven, and Salvatore (or, savior). The only thing that makes Messiah so special is people are not used to it yet. To that I say there is a first time for everything.
Yet, the author/psychologist goes on to say:
“The way people parent their kids has shifted. At one time there was the idea that you raise the child with the lesson that the world does not revolve around them and now we raise them that it does. This is witnessed in various ways from singing preschool songs like ‘I am Special’ to dressing up little girls in t-shirts that say ‘Princess.’”
Ah, the old school parenting nostalgia. Yes, there was a time you told children they were to be seen and not heard, and kids knew they were not special. This was back when wives stayed in the kitchen and if any of the household stepped out of line, they were beaten. Good times.
What times might these be referencing, exactly? Let’s look at the 1950s. Names in popular use then include dish detergents Dawn (does she think the sun rises on her?), Joy (is she going to think everyone is happy with her?), and other had-the-nerve names like Rex (who does he think he is? a king?) and Max (you mean, like the max or highest level of something?). Yes, the good old days, when kids were taken down a peg. When we had no hopes or dreams for our kids, except that they work at the mill. A nice dream, but our names don’t necessarily reflect that version of history. We’re just so used to them that they seem like conservative, safe choices for us.
And yet… in that golden era of child-rearing, princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora (like Dawn, a narcissist) were still teaching little girls that you could be beautiful and kind at the same time. Even worse, they taught that anyone could be special and be a princess. Those stuck up witches!
Twenge’s stance assumes that a name denoting high self-worth will equate to a self-absorbed or even inconsiderate person. Isn’t it possible to be both celebrated as special and someone who cares about others?
All parenting styles have been used throughout time and culture. There were no “good old days” to be nostalgic of. There have always been loving, doting parents as there have also been parents who emphasized obedience and humility above all else. Sometimes there are parenting trends in certain times and places, and that is not constant. Even the Puritans (known for being real killjoys– sorry, Joy), who were masters of Obedience and Humility (real names they bestowed) had occasions to show softer sides. Names like Happy and Trinity were also used. Trinity– there’s a blasphemous, narcissistic name if ever I saw one. This girl doesn’t just think she’s the Messiah, she thinks she’s the whole Holy Trinity!
Or could it be that names like Messiah and Trinity are often done in homage to one’s faith, not in declaration of what one is? And either way, who are we to judge or care? Any faith-related name is a personal matter that every parent has the freedom to express in a country that upholds religious freedom and freedom of speech. If you think your child is the Messiah, who am I to judge?
In fact, another Puritan name, Christmas, was listed in this spin-off by The Stir as an up and coming narcissist name. Christmas may not be a name in popular use, but it’s not new. The article seemed tongue-in-cheek, but the lacking historical perspective of people labeling people in the present as “narcissists” (or worse, condemning our kids to being narcissists over their names) strikes as ignorant. By the way, the French word for
Christmas, Noël, has been in use for males and females in its various forms for ages (without criticism or spite). Again, a little cultural understanding and perspective on history and language goes a long way.
Back briefly to the subject of parenting, how dare we teach kids to sing songs about being special, or give them shirts that say “Princess”? I think the self-esteem culture is a culture created after years of damaging abuse. Everyone gets a medal, everyone is a winner, anyone can be anything, etc., were ways of combating an excess of “tough love”, or no love. Is uplifting children and giving them hope for their potential wrong? Would we prefer people sing songs about being not good enough in pre-school? Would we rather our kids wear shirts that say “Normal”? Would creating a culture of children who embrace a taught sense of only adequacy be helpful, or would it really just make other people feel more adequate? Let’s be truthful. We are coming out of a recent past where kids felt they had to constantly prove themselves to earn their parents respect and approval. Sometimes that token never came. It made for some seriously damaged adults. It makes sense that a new approach would be attempted in the aftermath.
Is it just me, or do some people in the older generations come off as a bunch of haters regarding baby names (and parenting)? Naming our kids some of these lofty things may not always be my own personal style… I prefer things a little more imaginative than Awesome, and a little less severe sounding than Major. However, if they and other names of this “narcissistic” variety are part of a parenting culture that is expressing its hopes for our children, I would never put that sentiment down.
Let’s take a look at some of the other names Jean Twenge and The Stir picked on, and really think about them:
Princess- It’s a sweet-sounding and -meaning name. Not my style because it is so literal in a common-use way, but we’ve been naming our children after royalty since forever. I don’t suppose using a title instead is terribly different. The problem here is whether or not one has a mental image of a spoiled brat when they hear the name, when it could really be a sweet little girl with loving parents. It could be a longed-for girl after a string of boys, or an only child after years of infertility. Crying “narcissist” here is more about the psychology of the person judging than the child and parents, I would think.
Prince - This name is not just the name of one of my favorite musical artists (born in that golden era, the 1950s), but this name was also in use 100 years ago in America.
Sure, the numbers have risen, but then again so has the population.
King - Roy (roi) is a French word for king, no one minds that. Ryan is an Irish word for king (+ “little”), no one minds that. Why is this any different? Because English is your only language? Keep in mind too that King is also a surname, so sometimes people are using the name to honor heritage. Or, maybe the use of the surname King is narcissistic, too? King has been used for well over a century in America.
Beautiful - Bella and Belle are pretty well accepted, as is Jolie. Beautiful may seem more literal to us English speakers, and maybe less romantic or poetic, but still? So what? In the 1950s, Linda was very popular, and it essentially means pretty or beautiful. Another one was Donna, a title for lady (think of the Madonna). Similarly, Gorgeous shouldn’t faze me– not on meaning alone.
Amazing- Again, so what? 100 years ago we were using names like Fairy, Ivory, and Golden. Fifty years ago we were using Ginger and Cookie. It’s all going to be okay.
Greatness- Big deal, but get this. Only 6 baby boys in 2012 were named Greatness in the USA. Just as many were named Hawkeye, and even more were named Napoleon. This is not an epidemic. But, of course, that doesn’t sell books…
Life- Eve, Vivian, Zoe– accepted girls names which literally mean “life” in their languages. The Stir jokes that this is the next name for narcissists, but how can you have inflated sense of self about being living, full of life, a life-form? Leif– an accepted, traditional boys name which is pronounced “Life” in certain accents. Lif is a legitimate Scandinavian girls name. Are they narcissists, too?
Queen- Guess which one they aren’t complaining about? Queen, and her sisters Queena and Queenie. That’s right, I added this name myself because Queen was actually more popular 100 years ago, and also in the 1950s, than it is today. Those weirdos and their delusions of grandeur! I’m glad we grew out of that era of entitlement we were burdened by for so long.
Twenge goes on:
“Vanity and grandiosity are two of the subscales for narcissism and we know that the narcissism is related to materialism and an inflated sense of self. So that’s why these names jumped out at me when I began looking at the data,”
But one thing didn’t jump out at her– materialism in our culture sometimes reflects a desire to rise above circumstances. As much as I despise brand names on a baby (like Armani), you have to recognize that a lot of this use comes from the lower classes. It isn’t that they worship material per se, but it’s an aspiration. People in privilege are often ignorant of this naming aspect. They can afford to be traditional or average when name-selecting if they choose, having all other advantages in life. In fact, sticking to tradition can signify a desire to maintain the security of status quo. Less privileged namers may decide to take more of a chance on a name if they feel it sets their child apart, gives them an advantage, or acts as a blessing on or wish for the child. This is partly a study in sociology, not just psychology.
Someone like Kim Kardashian, for example, isn’t naming her child Lexus. Why would she? She could have any car she wants.
Vanity? There’s another Puritan name. In terms of our “inflated sense of self”, is it wrong to call each other great or beautiful? Many of our names mean great or beautiful, literally or subtly. Are we saying we aren’t really great and beautiful, and we are giving our kids more confidence than they’re worth? Are our kids actually Ugly, Plain, or Mediocre?
You may be familiar with the fact that I am very picky and critical when it comes to the topic of baby names, but this is a bully mentality being applied. The misunderstanding here with names lies in the context. To label something as narcissism when it’s really a) not as widespread a problem as it’s made to be and b) more about repairing damage (years of abuse or poverty) is completely backwards and picks on the downtrodden. It favors sticking to the norm and status quo, even if that norm was dismal for many, because it suited the critic better. Narcissism may exist, but what we are witnessing is a trend into loving adoration in order to compensate for and break away from decades/centuries of culturally conditioned self-loathing and oppression. It’s a movement that needs to happen for our culture to thrive.
So is naming a child after yourself narcissistic? Some parents think so, but not Twenge.
“Naming a child after yourself has a number of elements to it. Naming a child Junior or ‘The Third’ is a long tradition and in some ways can be seen
as communalism, which is in many ways the opposite of narcissism. And
it’s actually the opposite of uniqueness because it means two people have the same name.”
Yes, naming a child
after yourself has a number of elements to it. (I fixed that for you.) So basically, Twenge, you are for tradition (even though you ignore our grandiose naming of the past), but more importantly, for not being unique. And, this is a good thing, because when more of us are alike, no one is special. Got it, Jean.
You can read more about how Twenge is “Seeing Narcissists Everywhere” (“Except the One Inside the Mirror”) on this Psycritic post entitled, “What Jean Twenge Gets Wrong About Narcissism“.
When it comes to names, either we’re not narcissistic or we always have been. In any event, this is nothing new. In fact, these naming traditions are older than the profession of psychologist.