Don’t Let Anyone Tell You What Kind of Kid You Have
Not only can labeling hurt your child, it can hurt you too
Good Kids and Bad Kids
“How’s the one that drives you crazy?”
We were at a family event, and a distant cousin was asking after my children. He was smiling as he added, “You know, the bad one?”
My cousin was trying to be funny, sort-of, but I felt my face get hot. I knew, of course, which of my children he was referring to. He meant my younger, possibly-clinically-rambunctious son. He’s the “bad” one. His older brother — who is milder, calmer, quieter — is, by default, the “good” one.
It’s not true, of course. While both of my sons are incredible people, both are also, at times, totally obnoxious and infuriating, each in his own unique way. My younger son, in addition to being one of the kindest and most affectionate people I know, has never met an impulse he wanted to control. My older son, in addition to being thoughtful and polite, can pitch a terrifying tantrum when his social anxiety gets to be too much for him.
This is too much to tell a cousin I rarely see and who, honestly, doesn’t really care anyway. But I care. I care that my kids hear this all the time. I care that many of us (myself included) are comfortable making casual generalizations about children based on extremely limited data. I know that sometimes generalizations serve us well. But I reject this shorthand labeling when it comes to my kids, and I think you should too.
In Utero and In Infancy: Labels Start Early
The ultimate unknowability of our offspring can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The inevitable question we ask a pregnant person, “are you having a boy or a girl?”, is an attempt to know something, anything, about a fundamentally mysterious little being. We don’t know if our child will have a good sense of humor or love math or vote Republican. We don’t even really know what our child will look like, so we cling to information about their external genitalia.
Sex and gender obviously play a huge role in our lives and how we experience the world, but if you’ve ever met other human beings, you know that there are all types of girls and all types of boys. Knowing that you’re having a girl or a boy actually tells you very little about what your child will be like.
And once the baby is born, we often still insist on interpreting and assessing their behaviors according to gender. Don’t get me wrong — we all want to describe our children, to give others a sense of our experiences with them. Problems arise, however, when we invest too much in these descriptions, when we begin to believe we have our infant or child “figured out” based on anatomy and a handful of observable behaviors.
Generally speaking, labels themselves aren’t necessarily harmful. In fact, at best, they can help us to understand and connect with our children. But we have to remember that they are snapshots of a person in time. They don’t truly reflect who that person is or will be.
Children Change — and We Do Too
Here’s some advice to new or new-ish parents: don’t let other people tell you what kind of kid you have. Not only is this a disservice to the child, it can be hard on you too. When my first son started teething, I had an identity crisis by proxy: who was this child and what had he done with my “good baby”? Everyone had already decided that he had such a “nice temperament” — what was going on with all the screaming? What was I doing wrong?
Not only is it important to recognize that all kids struggle at some point, but we must also remember a wonderful and crucial point: change is inherent in childhood. A nightmare three-year old might be a dream of a teenager. An infant who’s a good sleeper might have a hard time transitioning to school. And likewise, a mom who didn’t know how she was going to make it through the first few months might later discover that she’s got infinite reserves of patience with her tween. Just like our kids, we’ve got different strengths and weaknesses, we’re going through different stages, and we don’t need to be defined as “good” or “bad” by an observer who seems to think they’ve already got us all figured out.
Sure, some babies are easier than others and some personality traits that emerge in infancy stay stable over a lifetime. At the same time, we need to be aware of our own confirmation bias: we humans have a tendency only to notice or pay attention to information that reinforces what we already believe. So, if you’ve decided my child is a bruiser, you may not notice how calm and gentle he is when he spends time with our friends’ babies. Or if you’ve decided my other son is easy-going, you might not see that he needs extra support in new social situations. When we generalize, we risk missing important information about our who are kids are and how we can best be present for them.
I don’t have a “bad” kid and a “good kid.” My sons, like all people, are complicated, multi-faceted, and always changing.
We need to let children be complicated — and we need to teach them to see and allow complexity in other people too. We need to model acceptance of the different, patience with the difficult, and skepticism of the reductive.
We need to remember the impact labels have had on us throughout our lives and to be so careful when we talk to and about our children. Because the chances are, they’re listening.