Change the Label

How were you labeled as a child? Smart? Sweet? Athletic? Witty? Creative? Different? Etc.?

We’ve all experienced others putting labels on us at some point in our life. A positive label is easy to accept as truth. A negative one can be confusing, embarrassing, and make you sad or mad. I’ve yet to meet someone who is happy to be labeled a ‘bad’ person or kids who’s excited to be seen a ‘problem’ or ‘troublemaker.’ Labels can shape who people become and the choices they make, particularly when they don’t feel like they can overcome the label put upon them.

My oldest is experiencing being associated with a negative label first hand. He has struggled with emotional regulation. He can be as sweet as can be, empathetic and compassionate, but if he feels something is unfair or unjust (against him or someone he cares about) his anger rises, quickly. He loves playing football on the playground with some newer friends. These friends, who come from more challenging backgrounds than my son, exhibit behavioral issues (largely in the form of lack of respect to teachers regardless of the consequences) and have gotten themselves labeled the troublemakers. My son is experiencing guilt by association as a result. From my son’s perspective there is nothing wrong with these kids. He likes them and enjoys spending time with them. A teacher, who knows my son and his emotional strengths and weaknesses, has recently being coming down hard on my son for what he believes are trivial things — sliding down a banister at school and having to miss some of recess (my son claims he only slide down the banister two steps; and acknowledges that other kids who slide down the bannister also had to sit out); and asking to go to the bathroom only to go half-way down the hall and turn back around (never using the restroom). This seemed to make the teacher particularly mad. I was unable to understand from my son why, but believe it may be that some of his other friends have done the same thing and the teacher had had it.

My son was very frustrated and shared with me why the teacher was wrong and he was right. While I empathized with my son’s feelings of being wrongly targeted, I had to remind him that he had a role to play. “You shouldn’t be sliding down the banister even if it’s one step. Your teacher’s job is just like mine. Teach you things and keep you safe. If you slide down the banister and they don’t say anything or give you a consequence then other kids may think they can do it and get away with it too. What if a younger kid tries it and gets hurt?” I asked. My son tried to defend himself, “but I was barely on the railing.” “My point,” I continued, “is if you don’t want to sit out during recess, stay away from the banister. Period. There is no upside to sliding down even one part of it.” I went on, “You have to pick your battles and this one isn’t worth it.” He thought about what I said. We sat for a minute or so quietly. Then I added, “I want to go back and talk about labels. I don’t like them. People, particularly young people, can accept the labels they are given and let them define who they are or become. You are not a bad kid or a troublemaker. Do you do things that are wrong sometimes? Sure, but that’s part of growing up. I don’t know that your friends are either, but I do think you all are frustrating your teacher with your behavior. You don’t want to be labeled as troublemaker, because if you are, people will pay closer attention to what you are doing and will be looking for you to ’cause trouble.’ Someone who isn’t considered a troublemaker will be able to do the same thing and they won’t get in trouble, but you will. You don’t want that?” I paused, “You are going to be going to middle school in the fall and are going to have the opportunity to start over — a clean slate. You can get to decide how you come across to others. You can change the label.” He thought for a moment, as if he was thinking, and quietly said, “Okay. Thanks.”

I’m not sure if I got through, but am hopeful he’ll take what I said to heart. I don’t like labels. They generalize people too easily and can divert us from really getting to know someone, their story, and what redeeming qualities they have (because most of us do have some).

Has your child been labeled? How are you helping your child navigate labels?

To Give and to Receive

What part of the holidays brings you the most cheer?  Giving gifts, receiving them, or something else?

I loved receiving gifts when I was a child. I was captivated by the magic of Santa and couldn’t wait to see what I would receive. Receiving gifts was an acknowledgement that Santa thought enough of me to bring me something he thought I would like. As I grew older and the magic of Santa faded, I found holiday cheer in giving. Watching others expressions of surprise (at the unexpected gift or the thought put into it) brought me great joy. Putting a smile on someone else’s face made me happy.

As I watch my children this holiday season, I see how hopeful they are that when Christmas morning arrives they will have gifts under the tree. For my older one, the magic is starting to fade. He’s starting to ask questions and we realize this is likely his last year of believing. It’s a bittersweet moment. Joy in watching him grow into a young man, but bitter in that the innocence that goes with childhood is starting to slowly slip away. I wonder what will bring him joy going forward. Will he continue to enjoy receiving, or giving (whether it’s physical gifts, or acts of kindness), or something else?

I can’t wait to find out.

The Way, Way Back to School

I feel like I’ve been taking a trip down memory lane lately. Some college girlfriends and I started sharing stories after seeing an article about our alma mater in the news. We exchanged stories of silliness, and naivety in our younger years. We also shared our gratitude that we made it through our college years relatively unscathed. We all feel very fortunate.

Since having kids, at the beginning of each school year I’m reminded of my own experience, the joy and excitement of being in grade school, the dread and angst of middle school years, and becoming a young adult in high school. I think about my kids and their own experiences. I wonder what their memories will include. Will their experience be similar to mine? What memories will their school years hold?

As the school year starts this year, I’m flooded with memories, time with friends, surviving the difficult times together and celebrating successes. Sometimes it seems like school was a lifetime ago, sometimes it feels like I graduated yesterday. Interesting how time and your memory can do that to you. Preparing for school takes me way, way back, and my kids bring me back to the present. I’m hopeful for what the school years bring for my boys. I’m excited about what they will learn and how they will grow, and that I get to be a part of it.

How are you preparing for the new school year? How are you taking your own experiences and helping your kids benefit from them?

I Don’t Want to Grow Up

Growing up isn’t easy. We tend to think of the difficulties of growing up as being a childhood challenge, but it afflicts adults as well.

My children recently watched the movie Peter Pan. Peter, Wendy, John and Michael’s adventures in Never Land really captured their attention. Peter Pan’s desire to never grow up really peaked their curiosity. You could almost see the words forming in their minds, is never growing up possible? They asked to watch the movie over and over again for weeks on end.

We recently took a family vacation (see my previous blog on road trip marketing toys). We agreed prior to going on our trip, that we would all travel to visit our family and then our oldest son would stay behind for a few days to have an adventure with his grandparents. Our son was excited. I can only imagine what he thought his adventure might include. While I knew he may fantasize that his adventures would be like Peter Pan’s, he knew there would no sword fighting or swashbuckling. Instead his adventure included learning new things like fishing, kayaking, hiking and enjoying the outdoors in a new environment.

The night before my husband, youngest son and I were due to leave I sat down with my son and talked about what would be happening in the upcoming days. He expressed that while he was excited for his adventure, he was sad too. He was going to miss us. I told him that we were going to miss him too. I explained that this was an opportunity for him to get to know his grandparents better and a chance for them to get to know him better. While they had watched his brother and him when they were younger they hadn’t had alone time with him. I told him that it was going to be an opportunity for all of us to be brave and that we’d all grow up a little bit from this.  My son would gain some maturity and confidence from being on his own, and my husband and I would gain some comfort in knowing that our son was blossoming outside of our immediate care. Our youngest wasn’t sure quite what he was going to gain for this experience. I explained, “You are going to get to grow up a little bit too. You’re going to get to spend some time with Mom and Dad one on one (something he’s never done before) and you’re going to see that you are okay on your own.” He replied, “I don’t want to grow up.” And while he wasn’t mimicking Peter Pan, I understood his sentiment. It’s hard to let something go that you love so much, whether it’s your childhood, your brother or leaving your child with his grandparents.

It was wonderful when our son returned home. It was a celebration. We learned a few things about each other on the trip. He traveled well with his grandparents, he picked up fishing and kayaking very quickly and he thrived being on his own. My husband, younger son and I grew too. We learned that while our nest won’t be empty for another decade or so, we have a taste for what it will be like. And while it will be sad when our boys are out of the house and on their own, it will be a celebration too. Of growing, gaining confidence and understanding that everything will be okay. We might not always look forward to opportunities that force us to grow up, but we were all a little bit better for experiencing them.

How do you help your child grow? How are you growing with them?

The Only Thing Constant is Change

My oldest son is getting ready to lose his first tooth. He can wiggle the tooth back and forth, and you can see the new tooth coming in behind it. I recently asked him if he would like for my husband or I to help him get his tooth out.  He immediately responded with a strong and slightly concerned, “No!” We all agreed we would let the tooth fall out when it was ready.

I made an incorrect assumption when I asked my son that question. Most of his classmates have already lost teeth so I figured he really wanted to lose his. But I think like any change we go through we have to adjust to it, get ourselves prepared for it, so we can handle what comes next once the change occurs.

A son’s first new tooth reminded me of when I first became a parent and how quickly my life changed once he arrived. While I had tried to get myself ready for parenthood through classes, books and talking with others, I knew it would take time to adjust to feeling like a parent.  There was excitement in preparing for my son to arrive, but also fear, I didn’t know what to expect really, and if someone had asked me a few days or weeks before my son if they could help him be born faster I would have reacted the same way my son reacted, “No!” because I needed and wanted that additional time to prepare myself.

I am glad my son reminded me of this with his tooth. He’ll be going through many changes in the coming years. I need to appreciate the changes I know are coming, and be prepared to help him navigate the changes we’re not expecting. It won’t be easy, it might even be a little scary, but I know we’ll get through it together one change at a time.