There is no doubt that your child is going to have qualities that drive you crazy. There is no doubt that your child is going to have qualities that cause you concern. But your job as a parent is to be your child’s champion, to find the good in what your child presents to you. Why? Because I bet you have experienced the pain of being mislabeled or misunderstood.
Try something for me. Fill in the blank: I am too _________________. What’s the word that popped into your head? Were you too shy? Too anxious? Too loud? Too bold? Too Forward? And whose voice in your head gave you that message? Your mom or dad? A grandparent? Or maybe a teacher?
Try this one: I am not ____________________ enough. What word did you use this time? Fast, smart, tall, thin, athletic, talented. All those come to mind.
Over the years as a teacher I would ask my seventh graders to complete those two sentences. What surprised me first was how easy it was for them to do the exercise, even though they were just twelve. These were not labels they were getting in their teens. No, these were labels that were already deeply stamped on them, ones that they had absorbed fully not as labels that could be removed but as gospel truths. The second surprise was that as I heard their labels, they were so often not qualities that I associated with the child I knew sitting in my classroom.
What became clear to me is how fully children accept the labels we give them as adults. Well, let’s start working that to our advantage. When we think about and talk about our kids, instead of focusing on what we perceive as their deficits, let’s focus on their strengths.
My daughter Julie is as stubborn as the day is long. Isn’t that wonderful?! From the get-go her persistence has been a sight to behold. As soon as she could crawl, she went everywhere that was open to her, whether it was leaving no toy undiscovered on the toy shelf or no stone unturned in the garden. She is a committed truth seeker. She didn’t have much language as a toddler, but I sure knew what she was asking as she tested me over and over: Really, Mom? Is the stove really hot? You say it is, but I better try it out for myself. What does hot mean? Oh, and Mom, will you really follow through when I do something you have told me not to?
A lot of children will cross some limit you have given because they are tired or hungry and they just lose their control. Julie had superb control. I would tell her not to throw sand, and she would wait until I had moved away to sit on a bench for some adult conversation, look to make sure I was watching her and then, her eyes on me and not on the person she was throwing sand at, would carefully, deliberately throw the sand. And yes, every time I would follow through. What other children would accept as true, Julie investigated three times as long, coming back to whatever was in question again and again. Wow! What a kid. And what an adult she has become! A college sophomore, she is diligent and dogged. She wants to go into neuroscience, a field where I think her stubbornness will serve her well. I have no doubt that she has the stamina and tenacity to keep pushing and poking for the answers just the way she pushed and poked my patience when she was small.
I hope I never told her, “Julie, you are too stubborn” or even “Stop being so stubborn,” though I’m sure when I asked if she had to have all the answers right now, she heard the threadbare frustration in my voice. Maybe even she even heard my internal prayer, “Please, please, please keep me from killing this kid!” She was not an easy toddler. Nope. She was the Energizer Bunny on steroids and at times she did me in, but her strong will and her clarity did leave me in awe.
So, your assignment this week is to consider the qualities in your children that you find the most difficult or worrisome. Perhaps you have labeled them—out loud or in your mind. Are they irresponsible? Bossy? Rebellious? Now, go online and do a search for synonyms of the quality that is such a challenge to you. Pick 8-10 synonyms and rank them from most negative to most positive, from a weakness to a strength. For Julie, in my dark days it was obstinate, obdurate and obstreperous, but when I was my best parent I rejoiced at how single-minded and steadfast she was, how fixed and firm.
Once you have done your assignment, let us know here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org what positive terms you have found. What surprised you? How has doing the assignment shifted your perspective?