It began as a typical, admiring stranger interaction early on in Scrunchy Face’s life.
“He’s so cuuuute,” an older woman cooed as we waited at a doctor’s office. “What’s his name?”
She asked the simplest of questions and I should have had my answer ready… except I stammered. I said his older brother’s name first before quickly correcting myself.
The seemingly kindly woman suddenly pounced: “You don’t even know your own child’s name? What kind of mother are you?”
As it turns out, I’m a pretty typical one.
If I could go back in time (and take things from the future with me), I would shove a new study in Ms. Judgey McRuderson’s face and say, “See! I’m normal! What’s not normal is you being such a….”
Hmm… would my time-traveling reality also include a bleep button?
Anyway, back to the present: A study from the University of Texas at Austin found that, of 334 people surveyed, 40 percent reported that their parents called them by their siblings’ names occasionally or often. The chances of these erroneous name substitutions increased when the siblings’ names sounded similar, when they were the same gender or when they were close in age.
Though my kids’ Internet pseudonyms — Scrunchy Face and Saucer Eyes — both begin with the letter “S,” their real names sound nothing alike, so I can’t use the first factor as an excuse. But they are both male and they’re only about two years apart, so two out of three ain’t bad!
Researchers found that younger siblings are more likely to be called by their older siblings’ names than vice versa, theoretically because parents have used the older siblings’ names more often over time so they’re more accustomed to saying them. That checks out in my case, too — I can’t remember ever calling Saucer Eyes by his younger brother’s name.
The reason I’m excited about these findings is that it helps alleviate my guilt that I’m going to give my younger son an identity complex before he’s even out of diapers.
“Because name substitutions are increased by factors like name similarity and physical similarity, they should not be seen as purely Freudian or reflecting preferences for one child over another,” said Zenzi Griffin, a professor of psychology at UT Austin. “In other words, people shouldn’t read too much into the errors.”
Perhaps most interesting is that, according to the study, parents sometimes make other name mistakes, too, calling their children by other relatives’ names or even by a pet’s name.
Once again, researchers argue that it’s not because, say, Mom loves Fluffy more than her son. It all depends on the situation. As researchers explain in a statement:
For example, a mother stands in the kitchen and wants her child to come to dinner. The last time she stood in the kitchen and summoned someone to dinner it was Fluffy the dog. The similarity of the situation and repetition of the words, “come to dinner, Fluffy,” primes her to say the dog’s name again when calling out to the child.
At least Scrunchy Face can take comfort in knowing that I won’t be calling him by the family dog’s name any time soon. We don’t have a dog.
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