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How Children Get Their Last Name

In a recent post, I talked about women’s last names and what happens when they marry or divorce.  In this post, I’ll talk about how children get their last names.

There are no laws governing (controlling) how parents can and should name their children.  However, the social convention (what is generally done in society) is for the children to be given the last name of the father.  If the wife also changes her name to the husband’s after they marry, then every member of the nuclear family (parents and children) has the same last name.  In the U.S., many American men grow up feeling a strong cultural pressure to pass their last names on to their children.

That is the traditional way children get their last name.  However, these days (now), many people choose to name their children in non-traditional ways for a variety of reasons.

First, some people now feel the old naming traditions are sexist (biased against women).  If a woman does not change her name after marriage, the couple may decide to put their last names together in naming their child, with or without a hyphen (dash; “- “). For example:
Mother:  Marlena Ono
Father:  Curt Smith
Child:  Raymond Ono-Smith/Smith-Ono or Smith Ono/Ono Smith

When an unmarried woman has a child, the child is often given the mother’s last name.  It’s the parents’ choice, of course, but when the mother is unmarried she sometimes makes the choice with less (or no) influence from the father.  In the past, there was a strong social stigma (shame; dishonor) involved with having a baby without first getting married, but today, there is far less stigma or no stigma at all.  In this case, Marlena Ono’s child would be named Raymond Ono.

In the United States, gay couples are almost always legally unmarried because gay marriage is legal in only a few states.  Gay couples often give their children both of their last names, with or without a hyphen.  A few gay couples may give one parent’s name to the first child, and the other parent’s name to the second, but this is not common.

When parents get divorced, there are many options and it is up to (decided by) the child’s parents.  If the mother changed her name when she married, she may change it back to her maiden name (woman’s last name before marriage) after a divorce.  The parents sometimes choose to have the children keep the father’s name, even if the children live with the mother.  If the mother remarries, she may or may not change her name again, and her children may or may not take the name of their stepfather (the man who is not their biological father, but who marries their mother).  It is more likely that the children will change their name to the stepfather’s if the stepfather adopts the children, making the child legally his son or daughter.

As you can see, naming a child is not a cut-and-dried (completely clear and decided) matter. However, a majority (most) of people have their father’s last name, so that’s what most people assume is the case (is the situation; to be this).

~ Lucy

14 Responses to “How Children Get Their Last Name”

  1. Devanir Says:

    Hello.
    This is a great matter to us discuss. I think that shoud there is a law, where every children should get the father’s name. Because this is a honor.

  2. Juan Carlos Says:

    Hi. This is Juan Carlos, a Spaniard living in Atlanta, Ga.
    In Spain children get two last names, one from their dad and one from their mom. The traditional way is that first comes the dad’s last name and then the mom’s last name. If the parents want, they can do it the other way round, putting the mom’s name first, but this is not very common and I think that very few people do it.
    I am not sure but I think that in Portugal they the mom’s last name comes first. Someone could confirm this.
    When Spaniards get married, the wife does not adopt her husband’s last name, they always keep their own.

    Thanks Jeff and Lucy, or Lucy and Jeff, your podcast is the best.

  3. emiliano Says:

    Peculiar for us, spanish people, so many possible changes about second names for the children and the women. Here everyone has two second names from father and mother, or from mother only if she is unmarried, just for ever till the person past away.
    But I can´t say what is better as sometimes it would be nice to change the names when they are odd or ugly, or even unappropriate
    by the sound with the first name or the combination of the two second names, and this is always an enigma as a woman doesn´t know who man she is going to marry and what will be the first second name of her children…., yes, sometimes a really fun combination.

    Mine would be funny if we change the order and miss the “s”…….perdiz arriba (partridge up) instead of the real one, but I don´t care about name jokes any more as being a children I have to hear lot of joking about names at the school.

    Nice post Lucy, thank you.

  4. Ivan from Italy Says:

    In Italy the Last Name is the one of the father. For at least 99% of the cases. Just a question for the spanish friends above: if the last name cames from both, father and mather, it becames longer any generation? Or do you take only one name from the father and one from the mather?

  5. emiliano Says:

    Yes, I think you are right Juan Carlos, in Portugal the first second name is from the mother and after follows father´s second name.
    For hundred of years also in Canarias Islands there was the same custom like in Portugal, but not now of course as it is the same in all
    Spain.

    Regards.

  6. Andrew Says:

    hi, lucy thank you for your article, it gave me a clearer picture of American naming tradition. to the most extent, it’s much alike to the one in China.
    could you explain the last sentence which is “so that’s what most people assume is the case.”? i am not quite understanding it.

  7. faten Says:

    In the Arab States of the familiar and known to the child consists of his name from his name and his father’s name and the name of the father and then his father’s father’s father, his father, and so on until the last parent. For example, if the name of the child David and his father’s name is John and the name of the father of his father, James, the name of the child as follows: David John James, and so this law is not one of which can be changed or falsified because it must be proved with documents that prove the case.

  8. emiliano Says:

    Hi Ivan, we take only one from the father and one from the mother. So if a man have only daughters, as me, and my daughters have any children
    it is for sure that my first second name (from my father) should be lost in my great-grandchildren. For this reason many men want to have sons instead, in order of not losing his first second name that comes from their fathers, grand fathers and so on.
    By the way, yes, it is a complicated matter that I don´t care at the least, but many men do care by all means.

    It´s interesting to see that every country has different rules or traditions about this matter.

  9. leila Says:

    In my country the people use their father’s last name, women don’t change their last name after they get married, if a woman divorces and have children and remarries, the children don’t change their name. But if they want to use stepfather’s insurance or other possibilities they have to change their name. in Iran last name of each person is he or she identity of their generation, I know that my last name is for my grandfather, maybe 5 or 6 or more generation before me, e.g. often we can understand on someone’s last name that who is originally from which city. For this reason Iranian people like to have son, because their son can pass their last name to future generation. But here are exceptions, some people change their name because it’s ugly and they ashamed when other people call them, and some of them when achieve high status in their job and education they want to change their name so they choose a favorite name.
    Best wishes for you Mrs. Tse and Mr. McQuillan

  10. Talal Says:

    hello guys :
    well, this is a very controversial and debatable issue in the middle east either, so .. that is why divorce is not such a good idea

  11. Farahnaz Says:

    Hi,
    It beats me how could be grandchildren’s name (or grand grandchildren) when a couple marry and change their family names and their children grow up and they marry too, and change their family names.
    For example:
    Mother: Kate Smith
    Father: John Green
    Child: Emma Smith-Green

    Child: Emma Smith-Green
    Her husband (in the furure): Raymond Ono-Smith
    Children: ?
    And so on
    I’m confused.

  12. theben Says:

    99.9% of polish children keep father’s last name.

  13. Tania Says:

    Hi! In Romania all children get the last name of the father if fathers want to recognize their own children. If not, they get the last name of the mother.
    The abandoned children without no name get the first name and the last name in hospital.

  14. Ivan from Italy Says:

    Hi Emiliano, thank’s for your answer! You solve my doubt.