A few years ago I was standing at the entrance to Safeway with my daughter, Sydney, who was then around 2 years old. She was entranced by the automatic doors, opening and closing with each passerby. After a few minutes, an older man came through the doors straight towards us, bent down and said to my little girl, “Well hello, what’s your name?” My daughter clung to me, hiding behind my leg. “She’s shy,” I said with a shrug and a smile. He stood up straight, pointed to me, and said gravely, “That’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Call her shy and she will become so.” And then he walked away.
I have thought a lot about this incident as it pertains to my child’s identity. While there is nothing wrong with being shy, labeling Sydney as such, as if it is a fixed, unalterable aspect of her being, could indeed confine how she comes to be seen by others. Sociologists, discursive psychologists and linguists have all studied this phenomenon. Their research reveals that our identities are linked to how we talk in our everyday interactions. First, by talking in certain ways, we are positioned in ways that become meaningful components of who we are. In other words: how we talk about our kids influences who they can become. Second, who we are is actually fluid, not fixed. A person may be “shy” in one situation and outgoing in another.
While identity is fluid, it remains a fact that we all have personality or temperament traits that we carry with us throughout our lives. The way these traits are labeled shapes our identities. We all know the parts of our children’s temperaments that are more difficult to parent than others. That active, “disruptive” kid in your child’s fourth grade class may be a dynamo on the soccer field. Your straight-A student may feel so strangled by the pressure to do well that she is afraid to try new things, for fear of failure. So, yes, be proud of your children’s grades and help your active fourth grader learn to calm themself and focus in class. But it is important to keep perspective. Sometimes we may need to provide various outlets for kids to explore their world and themselves so they are not limited to one or two contexts, like school or sports. Sometimes, keeping perspective might be as simple as letting events unfold before we draw conclusions or label our kids. We might do well to give them permission to change – and to remember that our children and are constantly growing and learning and becoming.
How could I have handled that morning in Safeway differently? Maybe by simply including Sydney myself, “Would you like to say ‘hi’?” and respecting how she chose to respond. Sydney’s seeming shyness towards this man was, I realized later, a somewhat appropriate response to his forwardness. Maybe I should have said to him simply, “She’s not feeling like talking.” Or better yet, maybe I should have smiled, kept my mouth shut, and let him walk on by. We need to consider how our actions as parents shape who our kids have the freedom to become, and how the sometimes well-intentioned advice of others might need to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, we are our children’s strongest supporters and if we don’t advocate for them, who will?
Jesse Gillispie has a doctorate in Education with foci in Applied Linguistics and language in social life. She has researched and written about the complexities of identity development in educational settings. Nothing compares, however, to the intellectual challenge of being a parent. Jesse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.