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Why Kids Inherit Dad's Last Name Instead of Mom's -- You Might Not Have Considered the Reasons Before


Regardless of how you feel about last name changes based on marriage, there are arguments in favor of children always taking on the father's last name that you might not have thought about before.

(Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Satoshi Kanazawa for Big Think wrote that although it might actually make a whole lot of sense for women to keep their maiden name, children should always take the father's name. But why? Why not, as Parade's Marilyn vos Savant suggests, let boys take their father's name and girl's their mother's name?

Kanazawa's main point as to why not is the fact of investment on the part of the father that generally results in greater survival of the child. And the likelihood of men investing is often dependent on them believing the child is theirs, since their paternity is not certain like that of a mother who carries and births the baby (emphasis added):

Patrilineal inheritance of family names is another social institution that emerged to convince the fathers of their paternity, by saying (if social institutions have a vocal cord) “The baby’s really yours, because it has your last name!”  Russians take it one step further, by giving their children – both their sons and daughters – middle and last names after the father.

Fathers are therefore expected to invest more heavily in children who bear their last names than children who bear the mother’s last names, because they are more likely to be convinced of their paternity.  As a result, ceteris paribus,children who inherit their last names from their fathers are expected to be more likely to survive and thrive than children who inherit their last names from their mothers.

Kanazawa also pointed out that some studies have shown babies are born looking more like the father than the mother potentially to trigger biological recognition by the father -- even on a subconscious level -- and support his paternity.

Carol Lloyd for Salon took up the issue of children taking the father's last name in 2000 with similar conclusions to that of Kanazawa:

“Inheritance laws, political bodies, surnames — it’s all about compensating for men’s inability to give birth,” [political theorist Jackie] Stevens contends. “The surname remains the only way of showing legitimacy. Without it, there’s no certainty that the kid has a legal father.”


Yet it’s interesting that traditionally, the man shows his commitment to the child by giving his name, while the woman shows that same commitment by giving up her own. Why are so many men still so attached to their last names?

“Identification with the father,” says Chodorow. “I don’t think it’s any mystery. It’s the classic “in the name of the father” — in Lacanian psychoanalysis. The mother has the baby in utero but the name is how men get tied to their babies. The tie has to happen somehow that ‘This is my baby too.’ If she’s feeling generous, then this is a way to show it.”

The New York Times on the issue of complicated last names in the age of hyphenation and non-traditional couples gave this example of where the husband's last name won out as well:

Zoe Segal-Reichlin, 33, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood in New York, was typical in her approach to naming her son, now 10 months old. She said she flirted with alternatives: hyphenating three names, picking either Segal or Reichlin to link with her husband’s name. But ultimately, none felt quite right, and going with the father’s name won out as the most practical choice.

“It was the best of bad options,” she told me.

The Times pointed to an early 2000s paper by a Penn State professor that believed the importance of a patrilineal last name would decline due to women keeping their maiden names, divorce, remarriages and same sex couples.

Still, as of 2011 a survey found that two-thirds of people believed women should take their husbands' last names, in part because of the naming of future children. In the 1990s, women keeping maiden names rose to about 23 percent, based on one study, but that trend seemed to decline to 19 percent in the 2000s. A survey polling 19,000 women married in 2010 found only 8 percent maintained their maiden name.

Let us know what you think about children's last names by taking our poll.

Featured image via Shutterstock.com.

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