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The Ethics of Renaming an Adopted Child

Adoption is a fresh start. 

It’s the beginning of a new family. Any time a child is adopted, it should mean they are entering a safe home, in the care of loving parents who will create a life full of opportunity, with space to grow and thrive.

Adoption finalization marks a fork in the road for a child and family. A moment as monumental as this warrants celebration. There should be actions taken to set this apart from any other day. For some parents, giving their child a new name is an important part of recognizing this massive shift in their life. But, this decision doesn’t come without controversy. 

When you adopt, should you give the child a new name?

It’s a tricky question that has sparked disagreement for years. There are wonderful people within the adoption community on both sides of this debate. Here, we want to go over the points from each side — without bias — and let you decide what you think. 

Questions like this are worth considering. The answer you come up with, especially if you are a parent considering adoption, can shape your child’s life.

Who Renames Their Child After Adoption?

There are, generally speaking, three types of adoption:

  • Domestic Infant Adoption
  • Foster Care Adoption
  • International Adoption

Domestic infant adoption typically involves the placement of newborns. The adoptive parents may work with the prospective birth mother to choose a name in open and semi-open adoptions, or choosing a name may be left totally up to the adoptive parents. 

When we talk about renaming children, we are mainly discussing foster care and international adoption. Because these types of adoption deal with the placement of children who are older, the children involved already know their names. They have formed attachment and identity based on them. That’s why it is a heavier decision for a parent adopting an older child to give him or her a new name. 

It should be noted, however, that this can still be an issue in domestic infant adoptions, too. Some parents will commit to keeping the name given by a child’s birth mother, but then go back on their word and choose a new name.

Why Some Parents Choose to Rename Their Children

Some children who come home through adoption have experienced very difficult early-childhood traumas. This is not true of all children. But, for many, the years of life before adoption are not a happy time. 

Because of this, there are some adoptive parents who believe that there is power in a new name. It signifies that a new life has begun, and the painful experiences of the past will not follow you forward. 

Additionally, some adoptive parents feel that a new name is the best way for a child to feel fully part of the family. Just as they would give a new name to a biological child at birth, they give a new name to an adopted child on the date of finalization. 

There are also practical reasons for a parent to change their child’s name. Children adopted internationally may have names that are challenging for Americans to say and spell. Due to this, as well as research clearly showing that name discrimination is real, adoptive parents may choose to give their child a more typical American name. 

What Adoptees Have to Say About Being Renamed

This particular debate is unique because we have the opportunity to listen to the voices of those who are directly affected. Older adoptees are able to speak for themselves — including those whose names were changed by their adoptive families. 

Everyone brings a unique perspective to the table. Generally, here are a few of the points that adoptees have to make about parents changing their names.

It creates a disconnection from my biological heritage.

Understanding where you came from is foundational in building a strong, positive identity. This presents a unique challenge to many adoptees, especially those adopted internationally and in closed adoptions. Their name may be one of the only things left that establishes a connection to their biological, racial and ethnic heritage. Giving a new name can take this away. 

I’m not ashamed of my past.

Some adopted individuals feel that changing a name automatically places a stigma on their past. Beyond creating a disconnection, the change takes it a step further, effectively saying, “You were not you before us.” 

I want to be asked about changing my name.

On the other hand, there are many adoptees who are not against changing the name of an adopted child. They would, though, like a say in the matter.

There is an age requirement here, and it will be different for each child. If your child can voice their opinion, you should strongly consider asking whether or not they want a new name. If they do, you could even ask for their help choosing the name. A child often feels powerless in the adoption process, and this is a way to restore some personal autonomy to their life. 

Questions to Ask

These questions are not meant to sway you one way or the other. Listen to your instincts. If all of the answers lean in one direction, then that could potentially change (or confirm) your plans. 

  • Am I doing this for my child, or for my own benefit?
  • Do I harbor subconscious feelings about my child’s biological family, and do those feelings have any impact on this decision?
  • Does my child want a new name now, and will they be thankful for a new name later?
  • What does renaming say about their biological heritage? 
  • Will a new name bring practical benefits to their life?

A Practical Solution

Are you feeling torn between both options? If so, you’re not alone. This is a challenging decision for any adoptive parent and their child. There is a third option available that splits the difference between re-naming and maintaining a name given at birth.

If you feel split, you could choose to leave your child’s legal name as is but call them by a nickname. This way, the child has a choice. If they prefer the nickname and feel empowered by leaving the past behind, they can do that. If, however, they grow up and would appreciate keeping the name they were given at birth, they can also do that.

Renaming a child after adoption is a decision that will play a part in shaping their whole life. Think carefully about if this is best for them. We know that all adoptive parents want what is best for their children, and we hope this guide is helpful as you discern what that means for your family.