Don’t Box ‘Em In

Erin: Spring is in the air and it is time to log some serious hours at one of my favorite places: the playground.

Well, this is a little fancier than what we have around here. But, you get the drift.

Ellen: The air is fresh, the sun is warm, the kids burn energy, and you get to talk to some adults. The kids get friend time. You get friend time. Everybody wins.

Erin: There is much to love about these hubs of mommydom—the mutual admiration (“No, you’re the best mom.” “No, you are.”), the shared responsibility (Little Darling is being watched by multiple sets of eyes), even the commiseration feels right, especially when it involves passing a sippy cup of wine. Just kidding. That never happens. Often. 

Ellen:  What happens at the playground stays at the playground.

Erin: And one of the best things happening at the playground is the information highway. It picks up where all of the What to Expect the First Year, Second Year, Any Year parenting books leave off.

Ellen: You get to compare notes with other moms and find out that it’s a little unusual that your bedtime routine for one toddler takes 3 hours, 3 adults, a Broadway review, and a voodoo doll.

Pleasant, pleasant dreams.

Erin: Hearing how other parents do things gives you a measuring stick because, as we have said before, parenting in a vacuum can lead to some funky results. Note the voodoo doll mentioned above.

But the conversation can quickly morph from friendly sharing into a game of labels and comparisons.

Ellen: All good things have a catch. What is it about having a kid that makes everyone claim expert rights in psychology and human development? You know what I mean? They just want to categorize this tiny person based on a very shallow resume. I think we can give a human being a little time to develop and show his inner mettle considering he just learned to poop on the potty yesterday.

Erin: Most of it just makes you wish you hadn’t commented on her kid’s cute hat and started the conversation in the first place.

Ellen: Sometimes parents do a fair amount of unfair extrapolating into the future. In general, this irks me. Kids come with their built-in DNA, but there’s a whole lot of living left to do after they make their entrance. Nature vs. nurture, and all that.

Having my choices narrowed down makes me feel itchy and twitchy. And a mom whipping out her tarot cards and declaring her child’s future label makes me want to have at that mythical sippy cup of wine.

Erin: You know what we mean. “Little Johnny ALWAYS swings the highest—we need to sign him up for gymnastics. Here we come, Olympics!” “Sweet Petunia ALWAYS wins every race—she is going to be a track star.”

Ellen: “Little Drexel builds such good Lego towers, he is going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Erin: “Lovely Rita ALWAYS writes tickets—she is going to be a meter maid.” Hmm, well, that could happen.

Ellen: We understand the inclination to make certain assumptions based on what you are seeing. It is fun to dream, but I have seen kids burdened with labels such as klutzy, spastic, and sassy when they are barely out of diapers. Are these the labels you want your kids to build their identities on?

“Oh, she is such a blonde,” may seem adorable when she is 4 years old, but it is a real problem when your 15 year old is using that excuse for why she left her saxophone on the subway. She has a belief that this is who she really is: blondes are allowed to be ditzy, because it’s cute and expected.

If on one hand you believe that you are the center of your children’s worlds, you cannot ignore the other hand where your perceptions of your kids molds how they view themselves.

Erin: In a parenting seminar I went to several years ago, the speaker talked about how we all wished we could have a crystal ball to see how this all turns out. I think a significant part of parenting is fighting the urge to frame a situation a certain way or, in this case, fighting the urge to label your chick before he’s fully hatched. We all wanna do it. We just shouldn’t.

Ellen: We shouldn’t because they are constantly changing and morphing before our very eyes. A little perspective. Wouldn’t it make you prickle if someone labeled you after observing you for a moment in time? If I was pigeonholed by the past 3 bronchitis-riddled-weeks of my life, I would be a couch-potato-screwing-up-my-schedule-OCD-doorknob-cleaning-freak.

Erin: In my own little lab of a family, I have two great examples of how I woulda had the whole thing backasswards if I had made these assumptions. First, there was Ace (14)—he could barely walk a straight line, was bruised from head to toe, and fell off everything—even the first step of our deck. I was more than a little concerned that Social Services might not believe what a total klutz of a kid we were growing here. 

But you know what?  We ignored what was right in front of our face and signed him up for Socceroos anyway. Eventually, he outgrew his clumsiness as lots of boys do by age 10. (It’s a developmental thing, who knew?) And now, after dreams of  being a professional soccer player, he also dreams of being a sports journalist. 

And then there’s our sweet Biddie (13)—the most wonderful girl ever to emerge from demon spawn. Biddie was the toughest baby around, and then became the Toddler from Hell.

We were kicked out of Library Storytime, playgroup, and dance class. Even the priest at Mass told us that God would understand if we took a break for a while. If I had been so inclined, I could have slapped a “Handle with Care” or “Caution: Flammable” label on this one, and everyone would have known to stand back. But I didn’t (I was a little busy churning out siblings), and a good thing too, because school was the antidote to her wild ways. Competent, capable, clever, and kind, Biddie is now the girl you count on to get things done. Those old labels would look about as relevant today as a reference to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Ellen: And then we have my Coco (13) of the yipping answers in kindergarten fame.  What would have happened if I had just labeled her as a difficult, hyperactive student? Today, she is one of the most communicative people I know. She writes novels, learns entire scripts in a single bound, and delivers speeches like she was born to stand on stage.  I would have been incorrectly pigeonholing her and clipping her wings—that’s what would have happened.

Erin: And if cramming your offspring into pigeonholes is a parenting foul, there is the ugly cousin of expecting your child to be a savant at everything he or she touches.

Ellen: You know the parent we are talking about. Suzy loves to chase butterflies, so we are signing her up for a marathon. Betty loves to pick dandelions so we are enrolling her in The Future Horticulturists of America.

It is okay for your child to have interests that aren’t pursued as formal activities. And it is okay for kids to try things and not like them, or horror of horrors, not be good at them.

Erin:  There has to be a balance between nurturing their interests and expecting them to excel at everything they touch. Spoiler Alert: most of us don’t excel at anything in particular, but we have learned to be pretty clever and accomplished at things we enjoy. We have also learned that one of the great joys of life is trying new things as we grow. Flexing our mental and physical muscles is how we become more fully ourselves (it’s the impulse that drives perfectly happy 40 year olds to start something new—like a blog).

Ellen: But expecting kids to have enough savvy to know they are going to like something before they try it is unfair pressure. It is hard for a 5 year old to imagine what soccer is going to be like when they just mastered walking 3 years ago.

Erin:  Bottom Line: Our chicks are cute and fuzzy, but they aren’t the most self-aware  peeps hanging around the barnyard. Yet. They need a little push sometimes to find their way around the farm.  

Ellen: But after that little nudge, heck, sometimes it’s really a push (no inert couch potatoes allowed), they need us to stand back and give them some breathing room. But to be clear, once committed, there is no quitting mid-stream. Coco’s second grade season of soccer was one of the most miserable springs we have had. But by the end of the season, we (and the tri-state area) were very confident that soccer was not Coco’s thing. We finished the season, but she was not locked in for the rest of her life.

Erin:   This is where the learning happens after all—in the space between having your hand held and flying away on your own.

Ellen: Because sometimes those pigeonholes come from an ugly place. Is it really likely that all four girls of a gymnastics coach really want to spend every waking moment twirling on the uneven bars? I must have missed the med school class where they discussed the dominant back-walkover-gene.

Erin: Is that four year old really dying to play  football? Or is somebody working something out through their kid on a field? A childhood is a terrible thing to waste, especially chasing daddy’s dream.

Ellen: Even when motives are more benign and the dream for the child seems bright, shiny and something anyone would want, pigeonholing is a dubious business.

Heck, I got channeled into being a doctor in 8th grade, only to walk away when I was 28. It was my dream, but I didn’t know what I was wishing for and once I was on the track, it was hard to get off (who wouldn’t want to be a doctor!). I wish I had known how tightly I was boxed in.  I wish I had had a little room to stretch and explore other opportunities.

Erin: So, all I am really trying to say is that when you are hanging around the playground, bite your tongue or at least fight the urge bubbling up in you to label these chicks. They need some good feed and a little room to grow. We have no idea how this will turn out, but that is where the fun comes in.

Ellen:  And if you think we are total slackers and that our kids won’t end up in the Olympics or at Carnegie Hall because we aren’t identifying, nurturing, and labeling their genius, there’s this book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chu. She has some very good points, too. You can check it out, and we can discuss like the non-labeling parents we are.


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72 thoughts on “Don’t Box ‘Em In

  1. Ninja Mom

    I am guilty of thinking (and certainly acting in, even if it’s a subliminal action) about my kids talents before they’ve had a chance to see of that talent is also an interest—but only with my first. I think the temptation to do “right” by her and, therefore, not do “wrong,” is just too powerful. BUT, I fight it. Because I think you’re spot on. They are small, growing people, who haven’t a clue what their goals are and how to align and nuture their talents and intents with those goals.
    Ninja Mom recently posted..I’m not cheating on you, I’m cheating for you.My Profile

    1. The Sisterhood Post author

      Both batches of our kids are super involved, Erin and I have the mileage on our vehicles to prove it. The evolution of activities in her household makes my head spin.

      It is so hard with the first because you don’t want to make a mistake or have them miss an opportunity. By the time the others come around, you’re like “the less activities the better.” Eating crayons is a talent, right?

      But my brood went through gymnastics, soccer, and ice skating before both girls settled into competitive swimming (cannot tell you how it simplifies my life that they are in the same thing). I have to admit, it was kind of hard to let go off gymnastics because we had invested some time (and money) into it. But you know what? Coco had only really liked bouncing on the trampoline. As the skills got harder and harder, her interest waned. Go figure. Her 7 y/o self did not envision how it would progress.

      Labels are such as tricky thing. Even “good” labels have a dark side. While everyone would agree it is not okay to label a kid as “fat,” what is wrong with labeling a child “the smart kid?” The problem is that label puts a lot of pressure on the child and possibly fuels a fear of failure or imperfection. I guess I’m right back to, “Don’t box ’em in.” Ellen

  2. Sarah

    I love this! It reminds me of a conversation that Gary and I were having last night about our 2 oldest boys. They seem to be opposites in so many ways right now. The oldest is my “jock,” while the second born is more “academic.” We were talking about how well they work together because they stretch each other in all the right ways, but we were also joking that our “jock” would probably end up a college professor and our “academic” would be an artist. I’m just blessed to be able to watch how their lives unfold, I’m sure it will not be predictable:)

  3. heidi

    Okay, you got me with Broadway review and voodoo doll! So, so funny. And so true! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the playground or waiting to pick up my kids from school, and it’s all advice and observations said with this forced brittle cheerfulness. It’s a little creepy. Oh, and the labeling! Don’t get me started at the crazy that is.

    Great, great post ladies.
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  4. May

    And it turns out they can grow into some pretty amazing people if we can only learn to stay out of their way! Terrific article.

  5. Sharon Greenthal

    You two are so smart, and your children are so fortunate that you are their mothers. I am at the other end of the parenting spectrum, with my daughter about to graduate from and my son finishing his sophomore year in college, and I can tell you this – our kids are who they are, and as much as we’d like to imagine differently, there is no way to change their basic and inborn personalities. I see in both of my kids the same people I saw when they were two, ten, and so on. Nurture, guide and listen – but don’t try to rearrange their basic nature.

    1. The Sisterhood Post author

      Thanks for the insight, Sharon. We need moms a little farther down the parenting road to show us a little insight. I mean without that crystal ball this is the best we can do. Thanks, Erin

  6. Jennifer

    This is hilarious! It’s always so uncomfortable walking that tightrope between wanting to share/obtain information and tips and wanting to commune with others (it can be lonely being a SAHM) and not letting the conversation drift into dangerous territory! Glad to find this site – very cute.
    Jennifer recently posted..These Ties That BindMy Profile

    1. The Sisterhood Post author

      Thanks, Jen. There really is a fine line between “Wow, where have you been my whole parenting life?” and “Oh, my goodness, I wish I could grab my kid and run”. Erin

  7. JD @ Honest Mom

    Great article! And so true. It’s so easy for me to label my girls. Lizzie is the oldest and a rule-follower. Sophia is the youngest and and, uh, shall we say, willful. We already project that Lizzie will be the straight-A student and Sophia the ones who climbs out her bedroom window to sneak out. But who knows? I need to be conscious of what I’m doing and not ‘box them in’ as you said!
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  8. jenn @ so this is love

    As you gals know, I don’t have kids yet – but I really am lucky to work with them and get to see some of their personalities unfold. I think it is a fine line to walk, nurturing interests being careful that they are *their* interests, and who they are instead of who we believe them to be. I hate nothing more than when a parent or teacher will say to me “oh he/she is just a troublemaker, a lost cause…” that has got to be a terrible box for a kid to be put in. Anyway, great post (sorry for mini-rant!) 🙂
    jenn @ so this is love recently posted..Her BabyMy Profile

  9. stephanie

    Spot on ladies, as usual. I watched this happen when my sister’s kids were growing up. The boy was “so smart” while the girl was “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” I spoke up on such occasions and still do – to her directly. But, unfortunately she believes it, and it limits her. Now I’m watching my young niece who is told constantly by her parents how smart she is. She is, but I agree that puts pressure on her. BTW, I’d worry if someone aspires to be Frank Lloyd Wright. He might have built nice things but his personal life was a shambles…we can’t have everything!
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  10. Louise Ducote

    Well done, ladies. In a parenting class I took at our Montessori school the teacher said that locking a child into a role by constantly saying to other adults in front of him, “He’s quiet” or “He’s a terror” or whatever can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, that we should basically shut up and let the kids do their thing. Keep up the good work!
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  11. Tracy @ Scribblesaurus Me

    This is one situation where my ‘laid back’ parenting style works. I had so many interests as a kid I probably drove my parents up the proverbial wall. (still do! haha!) I can see the same in my son and I just let him go to it. When he commits to something, he’ll be held to it, but for now I just want him to explore. My husband and I just ensure that we are there for him when he needs more direction or has questions.

    Great post this week, guys!
    Tracy @ Scribblesaurus Me recently posted..Rainy DaysMy Profile

  12. Delilah

    Love this one ladies! We long ago decided that our kids can try any activity that interests them but once they commit they are not allowed to quit. If they sign up for a whole year of art classes, they’re going to a year of art lessons. And this rule is the reason that our 7 year old now loves gymnastics. She hated it with a passion and cried huge crocodile tears before every single class for 4 months. Then she began to enjoy it and now she loves it. If I’d let her quit (and I admit it would’ve been easier for me) she would not have ever figured out how much she enjoys tumbling and hurtling herself thru space towards a very thin blue mat. Huh.
    Delilah recently posted..So What?My Profile

  13. Michelle Longo

    Love this. Great advice! I love the comment about wishing you hadn’t opened your mouth and gotten another mom going – I have one of those friends I’m always afraid to talk to for that reason!! And the boxing them in on someone else’s dreams… I’ve seen that happen. Loved this! You guys are awesome!
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  14. Missy Olive

    You know this is a great post. I read it and I relate. And then I feel sad because as a step mom I don’t have the same luxury to “sign the kids up” for various activities. What we want may not be supported by the other parent and vice versa. And then I stop being selfish and I think, what do the kids want?

  15. Beej

    Yes. This. “I think a significant part of parenting is fighting the urge to frame a situation a certain way or, in this case, fighting the urge to label your chick before he’s fully hatched. We all wanna do it. We just shouldn’t.”

    When my little Emma grows up, she’s going to write amazing blogs like this. She is the best writer in her WHOLE CLASS!
    Beej recently posted..Meeting EmmaMy Profile

  16. Runnermom-jen

    I’m with Alison…you two need to WRITE A BOOK…because every time I read your posts, you leave me thinking about how I’m raising my own children, and maybe I need to be doing things differently. One quick thing, though…I was a very clumsy little girl, who turned into a very clumsy teen, and is still a VERY clumsy adult…some things you just can’t grow out of 😉
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  17. Sarah Reinhart @littlewhitewhale

    Oh I have such mixed feelings about labels! But like you said, just so as we aren’t boxing our children in. Even though I am very careful to let my kiddos JUST BE. Let them grow up a little. Let them figure a few things out for themselves–it’s the other well intentioned adults in their lives that aren’t as careful….like grandparents…teachers….just another thing in parenthood to learn to navigate, you know?

  18. Kristin

    I’ve realized that I’m so lucky (or just oblivious) because I know one, maybe two, people who talk that way about their children. And it’s never people I just chat with at the playground. Of course, I’m not usually the person looking to chat. I’m really horrible at hiding my emotions, so perhaps people see the glazed look of “I don’t believe any one of our children is a genius in any way whatsoever” and move on to someone else.

    Really great, down-to-earth conversation, Ladies! Thank you.
    Kristin recently posted..The Evidence in the PhotoMy Profile

    1. The Sisterhood Post author

      Thanks! It happened to me three times in a week after not happening for a very long time, so it was on my mind. It was definitely all moms of 4 your olds too so maybe there is some anxiety there driving it (they’ll be in kindergarten next year. Hadn’t thought of that before. Erin

  19. Shiftless Mommie

    I love what you are saying here. I hate hearing about kids who are “future” whatevers or little geniuses. Kids should be playing in dirt and picking their noses. Whenever a parent talks about his child’s wonderful talents for more than 2 minutes, I start playing music in my head.
    Shiftless Mommie recently posted..This is not about Baby Hiccups.My Profile

  20. Kim@Mamamzungu

    I just read of a study that says the kids who are always praised for being inherently good at something are the first to give up when something doesn’t come easily. And perseverence is probably just as (if not more) important as innate ability. So, we do a diservice labeling them.

    This same book talks about how when we test kids at around to see if they are “gifted” we get it wrong (as measured by aptitude by the 3rd grade) almost 75% of the time!!

    So, “science” backs you all up (love it when science and folk wisdom agree) nearly all the way!
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  21. Miranda

    Great article! I’m very thankful to have had parents who let me try things that I wanted to try (which, honestly, were probably things my friends were trying) and never pushed me to do things THEY wanted me to do. In the end, I found what I loved – music. Also, I’m glad you gave the disclaimer because, for a second, I had some SERIOUS playground envy.
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  22. Kristin @ What She Said

    In all fairness, sometimes people DO say these types of things in jest. I know I’ve noted my 2YO’s potential future in engineering while watching her build tall Lego towers, or noted a possibly proclivity for gymnastics as I watched her attempt to swing from the monkey bars at the playground. But I always say it laughingly. I’m by no means planning her future at MIT or even signing her up for a tumbling class right now. So, I think sometimes the context of what’s being said lies more in the WAY it’s being said.

    That being said, yes, there are some scary parents at the playground. I always try to strike up conversations with other moms when we’re just standing around watching our kids play. After all, you never know when you might make a new friend, right? Then again, sometimes I’ve wound up regretting it. Deeply. 😉
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    1. The Sisterhood Post author

      That is an excellent point. I am also prone to the sarcasm and the punny when I am chatting—I consider it a Rorschach test for new friends—but there is that certain brand of parent that can be nails on the chalkboard not just to me, but to everyone I know. Thanks, Erin

  23. Mirjam

    Maybe the problem is, that we don’t really focus on our child when we lable. We focus on our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our ego’s, our pride.
    Because if we would really focus on the child, we would see a young child, a clean slate, with a whole future ahead of them and lost of possibilities. And we should never ever limit that child.
    Mirjam recently posted..InnocenceMy Profile

  24. Youngman Brown

    I never really considered the fact that the playground is the place for parents to convene and exchange parenting advice.

    When I was a kid, my parents didn’t take me to the playground too often, instead electing to hang out in our own backyard. Perhaps that is why they raised me so differently.
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  25. Just Jennifer

    My mom started pigeon-holing my daughter by age 1. She liked to knock down block…oh, she’s gonna demolish things! I totally waved her off, saying we can’t know anything like that yet!

  26. Erin @Momfog

    Are you trying to tell me that my 2yo little girl isn’t going to be the next Mary Cassatt? Because her artwork is divine.

    I know these moms and they frighten me. I understand the desire to build castles in the air. Who doesn’t want their children to be someone great and loved? I don’t know. There’s a fine line between encouragement and pushiness. I just hope I recognize it when the time comes.

    Great post.
    Erin @Momfog recently posted..My Brother is Autistic?!My Profile

    1. The Sisterhood Post author

      Oh, I love your phrase “desire to build castles in the air.” Thank you for your comment because I’m really sure now that we were able to convey what we meant. Thanks for stopping by Erin! Ellen

  27. Deb

    A-MEN, sisters. I wrote a post about this at some point called “What sound does the dog make.” Like, if my kid couldn’t woof like a dog, he was going to be a shoppingcart salesman or something.

    Anyway, definitely appreciated the post.
    Deb recently posted..Gimme the Goods, Moo CowMy Profile


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