Friday, April 9, 2010

Mistaken Identity

We mothers pride ourselves in knowing our children. We make it a point to know who their best friends are, what their favorite subject is, and the things they like to do. We catalogue their strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes and put them in their permanent record. We are naturally interested in our children, so it's easy to remember facts like weight and height percentiles at each stage in their lives, and share this with every acquaintance. We like to be known and understood, but sometimes this is not in the best interest of the child.

A couple of weeks ago, a new friend asked if Ronan would want to sign up to play basketball with her son. Ronan heard her ask and looked neutral on it (well, mostly because he was engaged in something else). I told her, quietly, that Ronan wouldn't like to do that, and that he was not a very "sporty" kid. But this isn't true, really and I do him no favors by putting him in such a permanent category. He likes biking, skateboarding, and skiing. Those are plenty sporty. Just because he has asked to sign up in the past for such sports as T-ball, gymnastics, and karate and then asked to quit, doesn't mean he is permanently unsporty or a quitter.

Recently, I took a friend's child along on a bike ride through our neighborhood. When we returned, I told his mom how easy he was. She emphatically shook her head, signally the contrary was true. I clarified saying that he stopped at every street corner and waited for me to give the all-clear call before he proceeded. "Oh, yes, well, we have him well-trained for that", she said. Neither of us were right about him though. He is not easy or impossible all the time. He is a complicated human being like the rest of us.

This is how a child can be labeled cooperative, easy-going, or mature one year, but difficult, uncooperative or immature another year. It depends on the teacher making that judgment, the dynamic of the classroom, what is going on in the child's homelife, and a myriad number of other factors. It is safer to talk about the behaviors rather than attribute them to character traits.

One of my favorite parenting books, "Buddhism for Mothers" by Sarah Napthali talks about the well known Buddhist perspective of "no self", meaning there is no essential "you" in any stable, permanent way. The author points out that defining the self in a stable, consistent way is impossible. Descriptive labels change over time and in different situations, so you are not always joyful, optimistic, or mean. We could look to past behavior but perspectives and memories are notoriously unreliable as "the truth". As we mature, as we learn lessons from our past, or as situations differ, we behave differently. We are not the roles we play either, as our circumstances or willingness to play those roles change from time to time. We know our bodies grow, vary in degree of health from time to time, and are constantly renewing cells, so that is not who we are either. If we look to others to define our self, that definition would be different from each person, depending on perspectives, values, and limited interactions with us. We may be flattered if their definition makes us look good, or feel hurt if it does not. Either way, it doesn't mean those definitions are categorically true.

Of course it's good to strive to know your child, but it may be helpful to look at each interaction with fresh eyes and refrain from judgment. Without restrictive images to live up to, our children might surprise us, deciding that they really do like broccoli after all. They also get the opportunity to understand themselves and the world and to grow in a way that is far less static than we think.


  1. Tracy, you're a wonderful thinker/writer! I especially relate to this statement: "If we look to others to define our self ... We may be flattered if their definition makes us look good, or feel hurt if it does not. Either way, it doesn't mean those definitions are categorically true."

    I especially relate to it because it's my experience that not only are we programmed to look to others to define us, we are discouraged from any self-exploration that could lead to our understanding ourselves and obviate our need to be defined.

    Beautiful post!

  2. Tracy

    Our society and school system is and has always been set up to track and label people. I know there are many people who are trying to break this mindset and look at people as ever changing and always new. We must continue to do this while we strive to give students and children as many experiences as we can, putting them in different roles and settings not only helps other see the differently but helps them see themselves through a new lens. Great post.

  3. Tracy,
    I loved this post. It is so true, and after one wakeup call when Jackson was 3 I try to keep it presently in my mind that these kids of mine are not immutable; they are ever-changing and evolving. I had a friend growing up who was one of three sisters. She was the 'talented one', and there was a 'smart one' and a 'pretty one'. Just I do not want to outwardly pigeonhole my boys, I also don't want them to identify themselves as 'not this' or 'only that'. Thanks for the reminder; it is such a good practice as a parent (and as a human being in general!).