II Indicators of Parental Attitudes toward Child Death

Indicators of Parental Concern. Naming and Replacement

In October 2011, 220 Indian girls chose new names after shedding given names that meant “unwanted” in Hindi. Names like “Nakusa” blight the self-worth of many young girls in India named by parents or grandparents disappointed by the birth of a daughter. Names, so integral to one’s identity, is a confirmation of one’s existence as well as an indicator of parents’ expectations. The value Indian parents place on girls is not only reflected in the names given to their daughters, but in the gender ratio; there are 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. This disparity is due to selective infanticide and abandonment.1

Naming in Different Cultures and Time Periods

Naming practices differ among various cultures and across time periods. At times, naming may reflect the state of childhood survival in a region. In the case of Indian girls, the naming of infants and children might reflect the values of the culture with respect to the importance of gender or lineage (e.g., the denial of a family name to a child born outside the bounds of marriage). Use of biblical names, or adaptations of male names for females (e.g., changing Samuel to Samantha), and names used to reflect expectations of positive personal attributes such as courage or intelligence are also indicators of cultural ideals. In some societies children are named after grandparents because it is believed that associating a name with a soul facilitates the reincarnation of that ancestor. Child naming practices are not random, “but instead conform to deeper cultural rules”.2 Parents in societies with high infant mortality may often delay the naming of a child until the threat of injuries or illness has passed. It is the fear of death that is often so acutely reflected in the name of a child, as illustrated in the following examples.

Like the many other societies discussed below, ancient Romans did not give an infant a name until the seventh or eighth day of life, due to the high mortality rate of newly born infants. Parents who allowed their children to die unbaptized were subject to punishment by the church. However, the penance was less severe if an infant died before the seven day period.3 As noted in Chapter 4, baptism of the newly born could often be problematic in medieval Europe. Names in the baptismal record of a town were often the only evidence of a person’s existence and records were often unreliable. If children were not baptized before death, it was unlikely that there would be a record of their existence.

It is a common perception that there was indifference toward medieval children based upon naming practices. For example, the custom of giving a newborn the name of a deceased sibling was a tradition meant, perhaps, to give life to an otherwise “abandoned” name, particularly when many children from the same family died with the same name.4 Medieval parents often followed the pattern of doubling up on names for two or more children. Unlike the Massachusetts Puritans (described below), however, they distinguished one from the other by use of the terms “major” and “minor”. Thus, naming may also reflect the practice of replacement (discussed below).5 Other naming practices include evoking the memory of an ancestor or hero, or conveying good wishes such as “may God guard you”.6

In early colonial America (and Europe) some children were not named until they reached the age of one. If an infant died before this milestone, his headstone would simply state “Our Baby”.7 There was also a strong tendency to use religious names such as Faith, Charity, Hope, or those from the Bible. Like medieval families, it was not uncommon for colonial American parents to name their children after deceased siblings. For example, from 1720 to 1800 seventy-five to eighty-five percent of children were named for a deceased sibling.8 This included girls’ names that were transformed from their deceased brothers’ (e.g., Christian/ Christine, Frank/Frances). The reasons for this repetition are diverse. First, parents recognized the high likelihood of a child’s death and wanted to guarantee that they would have a same-name successor. In the eighteenth century nearly ninety percent of dying children named for a parent, had their names also bestowed to a sibling. “As death became romanticized in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the deadness of deceased children did not seem so complete. Parents before 1800 may have appreciated the uniqueness of the living child. But since death was so absolute, they found it appropriate to give a succeeding child the name of his or her deceased sibling”.9 As attitudes towards death changed, so too did naming practices.

There were no differences in repetitive naming practices between infants (who had a higher mortality rate) and children between one and five; “thereafter, age at death actually increased the likelihood of necronymic successor, especially for children not named after parents. This pattern is the opposite of what we would expect to find if the modern sense of uniqueness had obtained”.10 One might assume that the personality of an infant would be less apparent to a mother and father, than that of an older child. He or she would not yet have adopted the identity that comes with the name.

Puritans began a tradition of using uncommon names that reflected their view of children. Names such as Thankful, Chastity, and Tribulation Wholesome indicated Puritan parents’ gratitude for their children. While Puritans had a reputation of being harsh with children, they also demonstrated parenting that elevated them among their contemporaries.

Native American families from Eskimo, Chukchi, and Koryak tribes, among others, named their children for deceased family members, since babies were believed to be ancestral reincarnations. These children were never hit as it was believed that the soul of an offended ancestor would depart the body, leaving behind the dead child. Since infant and child mortality was high among all native children, they were often called “baby” or “little one” until the age of five or as late as ten. Similarly, the Inca left their children unnamed until they were two or three years old, when they were weaned. A temporary name was given to Incan children until a permanent one was bestowed at puberty.11 These practices demonstrated a deep affection for family in general, a reverence for ancestors, but also a cognizance that their infants may be on borrowed time.

Infanticide among some indigenous peoples in Brazil is often seen as a communal decision to not accept the child (as discussed in Chapter 7). In cases where children were “eligible” for infanticide (for reasons of being born with a deformity or without a father) but permitted to live, those children were not named until the age of two. Among the Katukina people, withholding a name is a way of socially “killing” a child; it marks the child as unwanted. Since infanticide is no longer practiced among the Katukina, “failure to give a name is an indirect way of exposing the child to death.” Accordingly, for other indigenous groups in Brazil, giving a name right away suspends the possibility for infanticide.12

In China, belief that “treasured” children are desired by the devil enlists parents to engage in a ruse of renaming children to suggest indifference. Infants may be named “Dog” or “Pig” to falsely signal disgust for a child. Boys may have been dressed as girls, or parents might go through a show of a sham adoption, all in order to feign a lack of interest or disdain so that the devil would reject the child.13 As in modern India, in modern China the desire for the birth of a baby boy is reflected in the names of baby girls. Presently, there are more than six million women in China named Lai Di or Jao Di, which means “Boys come, come, come”.14

In early twentieth century Japan, baby girls remained unnamed for thirteen days and boys for thirty-one. The death of a child is perceived as an omen from an angry Heaven and presents a threat to the next child to be born. Parents mitigated that threat by feigning abandonment to a bamboo grave where a friend of relative could “stumble” upon it and claim it. The child would then be presented to the parents as a replacement for the lost chlid. These same infants were than given co-names to indicate their status, such as sute (abandoned), sutejiro (abandoned second-born).15

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