Are Hyphenated Last Names Harmful for Kids?

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With less than half of kids living in a home with two married heterosexual parents, it’s no wonder that giving a newborn dad’s last name isn’t automatic anymore. But an Australian former couple, who has been warring over their son’s last name for the past two years, takes the surname dilemma to a whole new level. 

“Ms. Reynolds” and “Mr. Sherman,” as Australian Associated Press (AAP) reports the never-married exes are referred to in the press, welcomed a baby boy in 2013 but have yet to decide on the child’s last name. That’s right. The 2-year-old son that they co-parent has no official last name because his mother, who wants him to take her surname, and father, who is fighting for a hyphenated one that includes his own surname, are still fighting in court over the issue. 

After a judge sided with the father in October — declaring that “as a matter of his welfare, a hyphenated surname would benefit the child possessing an identity with both families” — the mother appealed and the Family Court of Australia recently upheld her appeal. “We consider that a dispute about the name by which a child will be known perhaps for his entire life is a matter of real importance,” wrote the justices in their June 30 judgment, reported by the AAP on July 23. 

Reynolds’s biggest issue with a hyphenated name? Fear that Sherman might “disengage,” from their son and leave him with a last name “as the reminder of a man who deserted him.” Yet the mom also addressed her concerns that with the last name Sherman-Reynolds, her son would have trouble fitting it on homework sheets and lunch boxes, as well as “face difficulties naming his children if he ended up procreating with someone who also had a hyphenated surname,” according to the AAP. 

As in Australia, U.S. fathers and mothers have equal rights choosing a child’s last name. “If the father is on the birth certificate, the mother can choose to use her own name but the father can contest,” certified family law specialist Don Schweitzer, founder of the Law Offices of Donald P. Schweitzer, in Pasadena, Calif., tells Yahoo Parenting. (If there is no dispute from the father and his name is not on the birth certificate, then Schweitzer says the mother can choose the last name.) Disputes are “a matter that the court would need to decide, on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “And the court will look at the best interest of the child.” 

But despite the mother’s issues with a double-barrel last name, psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, tells Yahoo Parenting that “It’s likely that being referred to as ‘the child without a last name’ will be more problematic for the child than a last name with, or without, a hyphen.” The whole court proceeding is what could really cause the kid harm, she adds. “And if the mother insists to the child his name serves as a reminder that his father is absent, that could create a problem that wasn’t an issue for the child to begin with. Plenty of children have the last name of a parent who is absent in their lives, and the vast majority of them aren’t traumatized by their names.”

Family law attorney Jacqueline Newman tells Yahoo Parenting that she’d be “shocked” if the mother is successful in any of her arguments against hyphenation based on her grievances. Calling the idea that the boy would feel upset being reminded of his father with his last name “sexist,” Newman, a managing partner at New York City firm Berkman Bottger Newman & Rodd, says, “There’s no reason outside of stereotypical ones to say that the father might become absent from the child’s life more so than the mother. She’s got to come up with something better than that.”