As I was leaving the elementary school parking lot this morning, I saw a giant SUV with those stick figure family drawings on the back. You know the ones - adults, kids, pets, and little stickers that you use to indicate what each family member likes to do. Now, cute as they are, I've never wanted to put them on MY car. But I've never had an opinion about anyone else having them on HER car, either.
Until this morning.
What changed? Well, this particular car showed two boys, each with a football in his hand, as well as a third boy holding a baseball bat. Now, that in itself is not a problem, but I wondered: what would my girls put on their little stick figures? How would they pick just ONE sticker to state who they are? I mean, they dance, play sports, love animals and museums and books. Sure, my youngest is completely obsessed with horses, but that's not the ONLY thing she's into. And my oldest has recently been bit by the acting bug, but she also adores reading and dancing and basketball and talking on the phone. My kids are not single-mindedly pursuing one activity at this point in their young lives, but are fairly well-rounded with a wide variety of interests.
So that got me thinking: if we put one interest sticker on our kids' little stick figures, are we labeling them, pigeon-holing them? And do we do this with their personality traits, too?
Last night, my book club met to discuss Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes. This should be required reading for any parent as soon as the stick turns blue; there are so many important themes in this book that it's impossible to fully discuss them all here. But in one scene that I found thought-provoking, a Kindergarten teacher asks parents to choose one word to describe their children. Innocent enough, right? One mother says, "Sensitive." Another mother thinks, "Mine." While reading that scene, I wavered between "sensitive" and "brilliant" for one daughter, "funny" and "generous" for the other. But then I started thinking about my choices. Is my firstborn ONLY brilliant? She's also witty and empathetic. Is my younger child any less intelligent than her sister? Isn't she creative and smart and brave, too? Does the fact that my little one would give up her last drop of water to anyone who needed it make my older daughter selfish, or is it just that she's got a better sense of self-preservation, and that makes her slightly less generous by comparison? And why in the world am I comparing them? How could I possibly choose only one word to describe these complex, amazing people?
Couple that with the stick figures I saw today, and I've got a dilemma: How do I appreciate and understand the whole person that each of my children are? When we label our kids "smart", "shy", "sensitive", "brave", or "athletic," are we putting them in a box and making them into who we think they are, rather than letting them be who they really are? Why can't they be more than one thing at different times of their lives, at different times of the day? And even if we only use labels with positive connotations, aren't we simply telling our children who WE think they are? What about letting them become who they are meant to be?
Now, I'm a firm believer that kids are basically born with their personality pretty much intact. Take my kids, for example. My older daughter came out screaming, and hasn't stopped talking since. She talked early, and she talked often (much like her mother). She exhausts me with her play-by-play of everything everyone said all day long. My younger child was completely silent at birth; her huge eyes looked around and took it all in, and to this day, she's more likely to sit back and observe before jumping in. She doesn't like to talk to strangers; she's not shy, just slow to warm up to new situations (much like her father).
But I also feel that, as parents, it's our job to encourage our kids to develop or strengthen certain traits, while helping them gain some measure of control over others. My older child tends to worry about things that she can't control, and it's my job to help her deal with that. She can't freak out at every little imagined slight of middle school existence, or she'll fall apart. My little one is far too persistent at times, and she needs to learn when it's in her own best interest to just let it go and move on.
Which brings me back to the stick figures on the SUV: In the end, does it really matter if this family labels two kids football players and one kid a baseball player? I mean, maybe those boys eat, sleep, breathe their sport. I'm probably way overanalyzing things, as usual. But as a mom, I want to embrace my children's personalities and encourage them to try many, many new things. I don't want them to specialize in one sport, in one activity, at this age. I want them to find out who THEY are, what THEY like, rather than get too focused on what and who I think they are. That's not to say we can't compliment our children; we can, and we should. But I think we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it. No matter how smart my daughter is, she's going to make mistakes and she's going to fail at something, sometime. I need to remind her that she IS smart, but that doesn't mean she is ONLY smart. And I need to avoid saying things like, "she's the smart one" or "she's the funny one", because what does that say to - and about - my other daughter? I have to guard against saying, "This one is my dancer; that one is my artist." Why can't they BOTH be BOTH?
Slacker Mom Says... beware the labels. Kids will live up - or down - to our expectations. As parents, we can't pressure them into being one thing or another, but we should encourage them to be who they are. Constantly putting labels on kids - even so-called "good" labels like "smart" or "kind" - might tell our kids that we value them for only these qualities. Nobody is any one thing all the time - and isn't that OK? I used to wish, desperately at times, that my younger daughter wasn't so stubborn. But I soon realized that her stubborness will serve her well as a preteen. No one's going to get that kid to do anything she doesn't want to do - no boy will talk her into something she's not ready for, no amount of peer pressure will work on her. She's definitely her own person, and has been since birth. Kids have a lot of pressure on them from many sides - parents, teachers, peers, society. It's a different world than the one I grew up in. I want my girls to know that I love them for who they are, not who I think they are or who I want them to be. My children are amazing people, and I could never in a million years have predicted how they've turned out so far. I can't wait to meet the adults they become.
That is, if we all survive the teen years.