I once asked an eight-year-old to describe himself to me. It only took one word: ‘Dumb’.
Actually, he bookended that with some other words. He said, ‘I’m the dumb one in my family’.
It was sad that he knew his ‘place’ in this way. He’d been reminded in subtle ways by his parents that he didn’t quite measure up, and he was constantly being reminded by his siblings that he was struggling at school. His older brother loved reminding this eight-year-old that he’d got better results when ‘I was your age’.
As his younger sister started to overtake him in the academic stakes her success only reinforced this notion that he was ‘dumb’.
Many children have a habit of ‘cornering the market’ on one attribute or characteristic within their family. ‘I’m the smart/dumb/big/cute/ funny/favoured/sporty/spoilt kid in the family.’ The problem is that putting yourself in a particular box so early in life can be highly counterproductive later on, leading to kids, for instance, avoiding opportunities on the assumption that they will fail.
Children are, of course, always the sum of many parts. However, their view of the world is subjective: they are good observers but lousy interpreters of what others say. So when they are told by others that they are smart, dumb, big, etc., and/or we remind them of this through the way we treat them (e.g. by giving responsibility to responsible kids and withholding it from kids who we’ve labelled ‘dumb’ or ‘irresponsible’) they start to form their ‘I belong’ statement. That is, ‘I belong in my family because I am the smart/ dumb/etc. kid’.
All this happens in latency – in the period of life before adolescence. It’s a time when kids are trying to work out who they are and how they belong to their various groups. And of course their family is the first group they belong to. So their place in their family has a significant effect on the way they see themselves in other groups. That’s why kids’ birth order is so powerful.
The trick is not to let kids corner the market on one attribute
Yes, a boy may struggle at school compared with his siblings, but he may also be tolerant, generous, sporty, funny and possess a whole bunch of other positive characteristics to boot.
The challenge lies in getting this across to the child – helping him understand that he is so much more than any one label.
As a parent, the first and most important thing to avoid is applying any of these sorts of labels to your children. No matter how tempting, or how strongly a label is applied by others, don’t buy into it. Your job is to stay above this sort of thing.
Treat kids uniquely, not equally
Many parents make the mistake of treating kids equally. You can’t! Instead, treat each child in their own special way. Respond to their strengths and don’t get sucked into focusing on what they can’t do. See each child as a whole person, not as a stereotype or as a kid playing a particular role. This holds true for special-needs kids too: look past any disorder and focus on the whole child and all their abilities, interests and quirks.
Want a child to be responsible? Then give her responsibility – for her toys, packing her school lunch, feeding the cat, etc. – and allow her to mess up occasionally, experiencing what not being responsible feels like. It should feel rotten, because she has let others down. ‘I’ statements (see Idea 26) work well at these times, as they are non- judgemental.
While being realistic, look ahead to the way you want your kids to be (friendly, smart, studious, etc.) and start to see them through those lenses.
You are neither wonderful nor woeful
‘Positive’ labels can be just as damaging as negative ones. For instance, being the ‘wonderful’ kid is a lousy role to play. It can be very limiting to have to live up to the expectations of your parents, which is what ‘wonderful’ kids often have to do. Putting kids on a pedestal is as bad as labelling them as ‘woeful’, ‘dumb’, ‘clumsy’ or anything else.
So don’t let your kids corner the market on one attribute or characteristic – whether ‘positive’ or otherwise. If you have a child who defines him or herself in one or two words, then help them scratch the surface to reveal the full splendour of the gem that lies beneath.
This blogpost is an extract from Teach your kids to SHRUG! by Michael Grose
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