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When Grandparents Want a Say in Naming Their Grandchildren

The discussions can get intense, said Ms. Tannen, whose youngest grandchildren are twins named Cedar and Shepard. “This is the first stage in grandparents’ realizing that this is not their kid and they don’t have control,” she continued. “They have to step back, and some are good at that and some are terrible.”

Sometimes, parents find face-saving solutions, like giving children middle names they will never use to placate one grandparent or another.

But clashes over names can backfire, Ms. Tannen pointed out, if they make new parents angry enough to withdraw. Parents serve as the gatekeepers to their children and, as I learned from my conversations, they remember feeling pummeled, even decades later.

Fortunately, as Ms. Ciolfi discovered, these conflicts tend to fade after the grandchildren actually arrive. “As soon as you’re pregnant, everyone has an opinion” about names, Ms. Tannen has observed. “Once there’s a baby, it would be pretty silly to hold onto that.”

Even Ellen Robin, a math teacher in Sebastopol, Calif., and her late father-in-law got past their antagonism.

She still keeps a file of enraged letters he sent after she and her husband somewhat impulsively decided to call their new son Ivan. “He completely flipped out over naming our child after ‘the worst anti-Semite ever,’” she recalled 36 years later, referring to the terrorizing Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible. “He said, ‘You have cursed this baby.’ He went completely berserk.” Her mother-in-law helpfully sent a list of names they deemed acceptable.

“I had never been bullied like that,” said Ms. Robin, 69. As a compromise, she and her husband renamed their son Jesse Ivan. But they always called him Ivan and, to her surprise, her in-laws soon did, too. “After a few months, it was as if nothing had happened,” she said. She and her three sons all developed warm relationships with her father-in-law.

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