The Labels We Put On Our Kids


May 25, 2013 by Julia

We had a rough outing with friends on Thursday, one of those bumpy rides where your stress level passes “high” and goes right into “hysteria.” In the grand scheme, everything is just fine, but in that moment, you lose your mind just a tiny bit. Suddenly you are laughing in a restaurant. Three children are yelling and trying to climb out of the booth, one baby is crying in a stroller, and you’re trying to wipe up lemonade and milk from two spilled glasses. In the process you spill the leftovers of both your children’s uneaten lunches all over the floor. Hysterical laughter is the only option left to you, really.

The worst moment by far, though, was earlier when my friend’s two-year-old son wriggled away from her while we were trying to maneuver our two strollers out of the bookstore doors – he ran straight into the parking lot, and was nearly hit by a SUV. It was a heart-stopping moment that shook us to the core, and I could write on that and how terrifying parenthood is because we can’t control everything (no matter how hard we try) for a whole other post.

But back to my point. (I’m apparently still shaken by the above incident, as I’m sure my friend is.) My point is that Fiona’s behavior in that bookstore was so frustrating that I fell back on one my recurring labels for her: our “little teenager.” (No offense to teenagers.)

I knew she wasn’t happy to be in the bookstore, probably because a few more of my needs were being met by our outing than hers. We were meeting my friend there, who has adorable kids but at two and under, are too young for Fiona to consider playmates. I also needed to find a wedding gift for my sister while we were there. So my agenda was to chat with my close friend, and do some important shopping; hers was to subvert my agenda at every turn.

She’s a master.

She refused to stay with us, even under threat of “consequences.” She told me “We’re DONE talking about this – it’s over!” and then stormed off to hide. She would glare sullenly at all of us from a distance and not answer my friend’s attempts to draw her in. She declared to me, “If you tell me to do something in THAT voice, MOMMY, I will NEVER do it!”

I mean…you see where I’m coming from on this “five-year-old teenager” thing, right?

I don’t call her this to her face. She wouldn’t know what it meant, anyway. Still, I was mad at my daughter, and apologetic toward my friend, so I kept muttering things to my friend, like: “What am I going to do when she’s actually thirteen? Dear God, help me.”

And then that night I was recounting the events of my day to some family members, and essentially venting about how difficult Fiona can be. On the way home, I was swamped with guilt, confusion about how to handle our next conflict, and real apprehension about when she does become a teen…all of which burbled up into an exhausted cry-fest while driving through the rain. It was a good one, at least, and seemed to clean the slate for the next morning, which actually went quite smoothly.

But the whole thing got me thinking about the labels we put on our kids. Dennis and I have gone through times when we felt Fiona was an especially difficult child, as well as times we’ve felt overwhelmingly proud or infatuated with her. I wondered how much she has picked up on the difficult label over her five years, though. Kids are not blind to the shared glances of adults, the muttered comments, the recounting of stories to friends. How much does this labeling affect a child as they grow up – specifically, when it’s coming from a parent? Will a child try to fulfill that label, or fight it?

All I know is, people constantly defy their labels, whether they intend to or not. As a kid I was the good, easy one (I think…ha! Dear Parents and Siblings, feel free to disagree), until I got depressed at 17 and started questioning everything and rebelling against my parents and generally casting a pall over our entire household. When Jack was born, we labeled him a happy, laid-back baby, and then an impish, tough, mischievous toddler who is just so smiley and cute he can get away with most things – the Matthew McConaughey of the baby set, if you will. And yet…as a baby he’d go through phases of crankiness and needing to be held constantly. Now as a toddler he throws about twenty (age-appropriate, yes) tantrums a day in his quest for total independence, makes messes constantly (constantly), and has a knack for running away at full speed (just like his sister did). Easy? I laugh at the word.

Now, one aspect of Fiona’s personality is that her behavior is highly dependent on her environment. With close family members she is a wild child: high-strung, demanding, an emotional roller coaster, and stubborn. But she is also wildly affectionate, festive, imaginative, sweet and funny with family members. With her peers, she is much more reserved and thoughtful, quick to make peace, and possessing an empathy beyond her years. She is also expressive and quirky and interested in stories and human nature and drama. (Dennis and I happen to be quite interested in those things, ourselves, and are of course delighted by this development.) She is wonderful and complex, like all people, if we give them half a chance.

She will get more than half a chance from me. I want to give her endless chances to show me all her wonderful complexity, because I contain a bottomless pit of love for her. Yes, she is sometimes difficult, but so is everyone else on the planet. So when I find myself focusing on one of her challenging qualities, I want to remember to step back and see the whole picture of who she is.

As interested as I am in figuring out and describing my children (clearly), one or two word labels are not the way to go. Sure they’re fun, when you’re figuring out the roles we each play in our families or social groups – who is the clown, the academic, the jock, the sweet one? and so on. But the reality of our identities is often much richer and more complicated. Once I have my kids pinned down, they grow or change and prove me wrong. Or the challenging phase ends, and I can’t even remember why I was so discouraged by their behavior the week before. Or it was really me that was being difficult, or grumpy or whatever. We all contain multitudes.

Thank goodness for that.

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6 thoughts on “The Labels We Put On Our Kids

  1. Emmie S. says:

    Just to comment about that day, I must say that I blurred everything out other than the bliss that came from that pirate ship. It was like a tornado of chaos and the pirate ship was the eye. I loved that Fiona made Mabel into the little dragon and included her in the play even though she is still just a little ball of baby. Shep adored following “Jackie and Ona” and everyone was happy and safe. I wish we could have lived in that moment all day.

    • Julia says:

      It’s true – that pirate ship was our little oasis. What a relief it was! Thanks for reminding me of the good parts. 🙂 And I was glad we met up despite the craziness…we’ll just have more memories and stories to tell as the kids get older. Plus, I still prefer craziness in public with a friend to craziness at home alone with the kids! Hugs.

  2. Lisa says:

    Lemme guess, Ben was the jock, Tyler was the clown, I was the academic, and you were the sweet one. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that. 😉

  3. Lara says:

    Your Fiona and my Mia sound strikingly similar. 😉

    • Julia says:

      Maybe this is just normal 5-6-year-old girl behavior? I guess we wouldn’t know, since they’re our firstborns! Poor firstborns. I guess the extra attention they get in the beginning makes up for it, at least.

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