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