by Vanessa Van Petten
At a recent parenting conference, one of the speakers handed out a survey to each of the parents. Here were some of the questions:
How would you describe your child?
__Silly __Serious __Mature __Rebellious
What kind of student is your child in school?
__Slacker __Over-Achiever __Middle of the road __Gifted
When your child plays, what role do they usually play?
__Leader __Follower __Creator __Loner
The purpose of this exercise was to get parents to think of their children and their traits—both positive and negative. I don’t have children, so I patiently watched the moms and dads around me struggle with their answers.
Some mothers ticked off the boxes so quickly, I doubted they really read them, let alone thought about them. Others sat, chewing on the end of their pen, crinkling the paper, unable to mark any responses. Another couple argued over what their son ‘actually is’ and what they ‘hope for him.’
The woman next to me turned and asked, “Do you think my daughter is an over-achiever or gifted?” Though she had asked me for a pen when we first sat down, she was otherwise a total stranger to me. I responded cautiously, “Do I know your daughter?” She shook her head, “No, but I have no idea what I should put, so I figure you might just be my coin toss. If I pick one, I do not want to be disappointed if down the line she isn’t really gifted or something crazy like that.”
I realized that this exercise was part of a larger trend of encouraging parents to put their kids in “boxes.” Schools, experts, and speakers ask parents to categorize their kids. I’m even guilty of this. One of my most well received topics is “The 5 Types of Teens.”
So, why do we even want to put our kids into categories? It’s tempting, because putting kids into categories makes us feel like we know them. And if we know them, we can figure out how to “fix” them.
Yet I think there are some consequences to putting kids in both good (“gifted”) and bad (“slacker”) boxes:
1) It makes it harder for us to see them when they change.
Kids change. When we place them in a category in our head, it makes it hard to see real changes that are happening.
2) It builds expectations.
When we categorize our kids into types, it sets up expectations, which can blind you to what you really need to see while putting pressure on both you and your child to live up to them.
3) It leads to disappointment.
Many of my clients who are struggling in school were once classified as gifted. Over time, they found that a “gifted” categorization was more harmful than positive, because it built up expectations that not only did they have to be gifted, but that school would be easy. When they experienced their first difficult class, they were much harder on themselves and could not see that it was normal to struggle in some classes.
4) Kids may actually live up to the categories you give them.
If you label your children lazy, slackers or slow-adopters, they have very little motivation to change.
I am going to work on lessening my reference to categories of kids. I hope that you will think about how you have boxed in your kids through generalizations you have made in your own head.
Vanessa Van Petten is the teen author of the parenting book “You’re Grounded!” She writes a parenting blog along with 12 other teen writers from the kid’s perspective to help parents understand what is actually going on in the mind of kid’s today. Her parenting tips have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Daily News, Fox 5 New York, CBS 4 Miami and much more. Visit her web site at RadicalParenting.com