Why Do Fathers Give Their Children Their Last Names?

By Leyla Norman
Fathers passing down their last names is an old tradition.
Fathers passing down their last names is an old tradition.

In a society in which the patriarchal tradition of marriage and family life is rapidly changing, the origin of fathers giving their names to their children can be hard to find. Today, women sometimes keep their maiden names when they marry, have hyphenated last names or otherwise change or keep their surnames to reflect their independence. Their children, however, often end up with their father's last names, even if the child's mother does not marry or stay married to his father.

Origin of Last Names

Jackie Stevens, a political theorist, believes that last names were created so that political societies could make having a nationality seem natural instead of being contrived by man, reports Carol Lloyd on Salon.com. Stevens says that William the Conqueror’s officials created last names during a census to set down rules of inheritance and to get more tax dollars in the 11th century. In later centuries, last names were used in Europe to control ethnic groups.


In the days when inheritance determined a large part of a child's future and fortune, having a father was of the greatest importance. It would be nearly impossible to convince society that a person is a son or daughter born in wedlock without the father’s surname. A last name that is the same as the father is a visible badge that the child belongs to the father, declaring that the father accepts him or her as his own child.


When a couple got married up through the 1900s, the husband had all the legal rights, while the woman lost control to her property, her name and her right to sue. This was known as coverture, and this system continued in the U.S. until the 1960s and 70s when there were still laws on the books that required a woman to have her husband’s last name when she took out her own line of credit. Children receiving their father’s last name was a natural outgrowth of this system.


In a marriage, giving the child the father’s last name today can also be a symbol of trust between the parents. The mother is saying that she believes she can depend on the father to be there, according to psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow in Lloyd’s Salon.com article. The tying of the father’s last name to a child is also still a way for the father to say that the child is his. The mother may carry the child during pregnancy, but giving his last name to the baby is one way fathers can stay connected to their children and is a way for mothers to be more certain that the father will be around to help raise them, says evolutionary biologist Helen Fisher in Lloyd’s article.

Even today, society views children who have their father’s last name as being more likely to survive and grow up strong than children who do not share that link with their father, according to evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, referenced in a February 2013 TheBlaze.com article.

Tradition and Convenience

It is likely that parents today find it hard to do things differently than their parents did, even though there are not nearly as many legal or financial reasons to give a child the father’s last name. Today, some women decide to give their children their own last names or to somehow combine their and their husband’s names as last names for their kids.

Live Science reported on the 2011 research of Brian Powell, a sociologist at Indiana University, Bloomington, that found that 2/3 of people still believe that women should have their husband’s surname partly for the sake of their future children. Enrolling children at school or taking them to the doctor can require extra explanation, and introductions can take longer if you have to tell people your child has a different last name and why. Flying can also be difficult if you and your children have different last names, although a birth certificate or notarized letter can ease confusion.

About the Author

Leyla Norman has been a writer since 2008 and is a certified English as a second language teacher. She also has a master's degree in development studies and a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology.