Cereal for Supper: Living Off-Label
Once upon a time, in a land far away, I was a high school student. And as I worked my way through the social maze that is part of those years, I realized something about myself. I didn’t like labels. Now, I don’t mean the “who are you wearing” sort of label. I mean the “she takes these classes so she must be smart” label or the “he participates in this activity so these people must be his only friend group” label. I always seemed to bristle at someone else defining who I was supposed to be.
Now, I’m also something of a conformist, and I’m definitely non-confrontational. So, mostly, I just noticed this about myself, and as the years went by, I realized that this way of living had both benefits and drawbacks. But, it really affected the adult I became.
Recently, a friend of mine was talking about using a popular personality evaluation test on her pre-teen child to help with some behavior issues, and my radar pinged a little bit. I thought about how much children are in a state of constant development, and once they hit the hormonal pre-teen years, they begin the process of trying to think “for themselves”. For some kids, the idea of being pre-defined can actually cause them to push back and go a wrong direction, just to grasp at growing independence.
So, then, what if our need for attaching a label to ourselves sort of spills over to our kids. I mean, labels can help us find our “tribe”, that group of people with whom we have similar lifestyles, goals, or convictions. They’re not always a bad thing. But they can be limiting. Our defined personality type usually needs a side of another type just to accommodate all the Parts Of Us. But, when we pre-define, or “label” our kids, the outcome could be less self-revealing and more self-defeating for them.
My super creative, “flighty” child still requires me to explain the day’s schedule 3 times, so she’s sure she has “got it”. But if I label her “artistic” and then expect her to be able to roll with anything, I’m going to get confused by the intermittent reliance on structure, and then I’ll think something must be wrong. It’s not. She’s just who she is. When kids get decorated with a label, then it could make them feel that that’s what they have to become or live up to, simply because it’s what they’ve been called. As I was talking about all of this with that same child of mine, she said “it’s like you get put in a box, but you don’t fit all the way. So you stick a toe out. But then because of that, someone says that you must not belong in that box, you must belong in this box over here. And then you get picked up and moved, and you now you have to become this whole other person. And all you wanted was to take out that one toe that didn’t quite fit”. The solution might simply be a bigger box.
Figuring out what makes your child tick is a tough part of parenting, because as your child grows, gets older, and gets a little self-reflective, they seem to change. But that’s not really it. They’re just developing. So, it’s okay to not give them a label. Have boundaries and expectations, and then let them grow inside those. None of us will get it perfect, but our kids will benefit from our efforts!