Listen to this story
Here is a list of some of the labels I was given as a child:
Hates All Sports.
Messy and Disorganized.
Doesn’t Play Well with Others.
It took time (decades, in some cases), but I’ve outgrown every one of those. (You’re still welcome to use stubborn, impulsive and loud-mouthed, however). I’m a foodie, an athlete, a hockey fan, and a reliable worker who never misses a deadline.
But when my parents are around, those old identities haunt me.
I walk through their door, and the words drift down from somewhere in the ether and cling. I’d been running for years before I found myself able to go for a run from my folks’ house. If I’m the slightest bit late to meet them when they visit, my defenses spring into action, along with all of my old excuses.
After reading hundreds of essays by adult children — now parents — and interviewing many more through my work as an author and editor for the New York Times, I’ve found my regression story to be a familiar one.
As it happens, my parents aren’t intentionally pushing me back into my childhood roles. But, many of us ‘supposed’ grown-ups do feel pressure, especially around the holidays, to take up their place once again as middle child, mom’s favorite, rebel-who-doesn’t-eat-salad.
We resent it when family labels define us, but here’s the real kicker: many of us don’t see the ways we label and limit our own kids.
Our children are big puzzles, but sometimes we build them tiny borders.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens, likes to share a favorite metaphor for raising kids: the puzzle.
“You set up the edges,” he says, “then they fill in the middle.” In his version, the edges are important boundaries, the health-and-safety-and-morality limits parent create to guide our children as they grow. They’re good, and they’re necessary.
But when I talk to the parents in my personal and professional life, I’m reminded that too many of us set up a different kind of puzzle border around our kids, and even ourselves. The kind that says things like can’t get along with her sister and doesn’t like to read and won’t try new things.
Here’s how to shift from defining our kids by their past behaviors to supporting their future.
Choose words, and even thoughts, carefully.
We modern parents are pretty savvy about some labels. We’ve read our parenting books. We know better than to do the whole responsible one or athletic one thing. But the little mental sticky notes that say shy or scared of dogs or even hates tennis can be just as limiting, and they’re insidious.
Stick to describing your child’s behavior on any one occasion as nothing more than that. They didn’t talk to that one adult, didn’t like that dog, hated that tennis lesson. Those are things that happened in the past, not things that control the future. Instead of drawing conclusions, look for possibilities. “That dog was scary. Lots of dogs are nice, and soon you’ll meet one you like.”
Remind your children, too, that growth and change are part of the deal. Lots of children trip and fall a lot as they get used to changing bodies. It doesn’t mean a child is clumsy, only that they have a ways to go before it all comes together. Reading becomes more pleasurable as it gets easier, along with playing music and many sports. You get taller and — boom — those dogs get smaller.
Keep options open.
Research suggests that a child needs 8–12 exposures to a new food before they will try and accept it (and it may take even longer before it becomes a familiar and welcomed part of a meal). We apply that happily to our kids as babies—no one ever watched a child spit out her first taste of solid food and said, well, that’s it then. Clearly this kid just likes milk, so we’ll stick to that.
But when we get older, that’s exactly what we do. One “yuck,” and suddenly the vegetables and the pasta are served separately and the pizza is always just cheese. They offer us these pieces to their puzzle, and instead of seeing middles to build on, we see edges that confine. Once we get started, we keep setting throwing up barriers to change, all under the guise of knowing our children well. We tell our friends to put their dogs away before we visit; we don’t bother to help a child choose a book as well as a video game for a long car ride; we keep our menus and restaurant choices limited.
Then we add those artificial rules into our family vocabulary. “They fight all the time.” “She’s so picky.” With every word, little moments become a bigger part of our family story. We make decisions based on who we think our children are, and those choices can box our children in. One legendary failed tennis lesson at six can lead to a forty-six-year-old who has never again tried the game.
The irony here is that changing is our children’s job, and we know it. We expect them to evolve in some ways: to go from sounding out words to reading, from simple addition to algebra, from “helping” cook to making their own lunch.
We know, too, that our own paths as adults have often been unexpected. We know we’ve found joy in unexpected places, and pleasure in things we were afraid to try. We know that sometimes we surprise even ourselves.
When we lose the labels, we give our children permission to change, and then change again, until they become whoever they are. That permission is a gift that strengthens our bonds with one another far more than the ability to tell the same tired old story about why your daughter won’t ride roller coasters. As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence, “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”
So try this, today: really listen to the conversation when your friends talk about their children. Mark how often they might turn an event into a trait (not wanting to sing “Happy Birthday” becomes I can’t believe how shy he’s getting), and catch yourself every time you have the urge to do the same.
And tonight, before you fall asleep, turn over all the ways others once defined you in your head, just as I did at the begining of this piece. Connsider how many you’ve transcended, and how many you’re capable of setting aside when you need to. No one likes being labeled, because we all know that behind the limits of the words lies so much more.
Children change. Adults change. People change. We’re awfully big puzzles. It takes a long time to turn over all our pieces, let alone to figure out where they’re meant to go. Sometimes, the pieces that felt like edges and endings are just an unusual way to connect to something more.