Last month, in a preview of his new HBO show The Shop, Lebron James admitted that he wished he hadn’t named his son after himself. “I still regret giving my 14-year-old my name,” James says on the debut episode. His regret is justified: His son — who already lives with the pressure of having one of the greatest basketball players to have ever lived as a parent — now has the added bonus of sharing the same name, too.
So why did James name his son after himself? The reason is laudable: He wanted to be the father to his son that his own dad never was. “When I was younger, I didn’t have a dad,” James says on his show. “So my whole thing was, when I have a kid, not only is he gonna be a junior, I’m gonna do everything that this man didn’t do. They’re gonna experience things that I didn’t experience. The only thing I can do is give them the blueprint, and it’s up to them to take their own course whenever that time comes.”
To James’ further credit, there’s research to support his decision to name his son after himself as a way to make them closer. “For children born out of wedlock, naming the child after the father has been shown to be a remarkably strong predictor of the quality of the long-term relationship between the father and the child as reflected by the amount of contact between them and the degree of financial assistance provided by the father, and these same studies have also reported that sons with the first names as their fathers had fewer behavioral problems such as bedwetting, temper tantrums and general disobedience and that they also scored higher on tests of cognitive skills,” writes Frank T. McAndrew in his 2015 article on the subject of baby names and fathers’ anxieties for Psychology Today.
But James aside, the tradition of naming your child after yourself — also known as a patronym — has been steadily declining for some time, according to Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Bellevue University in Nebraska who specializes in omnastics (the study of names). “The percentage of juniors has been going down in American culture in general over the last 40 years at least,” Evans told NBC News in 2009.
Jennifer Moss, the founder and CEO of BabyNames.com, agrees with Evans and suggests a few different explanations for why people stopped naming their child after themselves. “Starting in the 1970s, it fell out of style because people wanted their children to have their own identity,” she says. Another factor is the proliferation of unique names: “In the 1950s, a third of girls and boys had top 10 names. Now in the U.S., less than 1 percent have a top 10 name,” Moss explains. Additionally, with the rise of computers and online banking, Moss thinks that having the same name as your parent could potentially complicate things like credit reports.
While that doesn’t mean that all juniors, IIIs, IVs, Vs and even VIs of their namesake have gone completely extinct, it’s obvious they’re on their way out. As recently as three months ago, one redditor claimed that his grandfather’s name, which was also the name of his father, is going to die with him. “I am the third of my namesake. Growing up I hated my name, it was so confusing. Whenever my mother or sister would call my name, I didn’t know if it was me or my father. I am childfree and plan to stay that way forever,” he wrote. Another planning to ditch the tradition commented: “Mine goes back at least 7 that I know of through official documentation. It had a good run, I guess!”
As you might expect, the practice is affected by both region and gender. Ryan Brown, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, has conducted research suggesting that patronyms are more common in states with Southern-style “honor cultures.” “I suspect the reason for that is in honor cultures especially there is a really big emphasis on masculinity and masculine strength,” he told Live Science. Unsurprisingly, then, Moss suggests that it’s always been more common for men to name their son after themselves than women passing along their name to their daughters. “Historically speaking, boys carried on the family name and they went into the family business, so they’d be recognized as so and so’s son,” she says.
For that reason, Sheila Embleton, a linguistics professor at York University, told Today’s Parent that she thinks the decline of patronymic naming traditions is a good thing: “The fact that women no longer feel the need to ‘honor thy husband’ in this way speaks to the rise of gender equality, as does the waning of a practice where the superiority of male offspring is baked in.”
Moss, too, sees the decline in the practice as a sign that the patriarchal system isn’t as important nowadays. “I don’t think that tradition is going to make its way back anytime soon,” she tells me.
Unless, of course, your name is Donald.