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Children and the power of pigeon-holing

Like many people, I have a little notebook of quotes, resonant bits that I’ve heard or read and want to think about more. One of mine, from the Gospel of Mark, is a question Jesus purportedly asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

This quote challenges me, not just on a faith level but also as a parent because I think it is the same question, possibly the most important question, that every child implicitly asks the key adults in his or her life.

When I look back over the diaries I kept during childhood and adolescence, many things make me laugh. One of the things that touches me now, however, is the deeply felt sense of the enormous power that grownups had over my life, for good or for ill. One of the most malevolent forms that that power took was through the use of predictions, definitions, labels and comparisons. For example, my father once said to my teenage self, “You’re not pretty like your sisters, but you’ll be successful.” For years I struggled with insecurities related to my physical appearance, which were not created solely by my father’s remark but which certainly were bolstered by it. After all, what father would say that if it wasn’t accurate?

A few years later, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship. The prospect of three years of study and travel abroad was a dream come true. The selection day turned out to be bitter as well as sweet, though, because when I arrived home most of my five siblings were in tears and not speaking to me. They all had been berated by my father for not being as academically accomplished as I was!

Few of us contemporary parents probably would go as far as my dad. I think that his (at best) unedited and (at worst) cruel pronouncements were in part a product of his times and in part a reflection of his own suffering during those years, from his as-yet undiagnosed bipolar illness and the alcohol he abused to self-medicate. But many of us have our own, albeit more subtle, ways of and reasons for pigeonholing kids.

Sometimes it’s a control issue, an expression of our wishful thinking about their lives or ours. For example we might say to our child, “You know you’ve always loved soccer!” when what we really mean is “I don’t want you to give it up.” Sometimes we stereotype, even unwittingly, as a way of paring down and negotiating some of the complexity of our children. We say “She’s my easy one” or “He’s the genius in the family,” unaware of the constricting power that even these seeming compliments can have on our kids.

When we comment on what our children are as opposed to what they do, we make it more difficult for them to step outside of or even to make real choices about important dimensions of their experience.

A now-famous series of experiments by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her team of researchers clearly demonstrated that it is not just the critical generalizations (e.g., “You’re such a slob!”) that can have negative effects on kids. Even “positive” forms of labeling can do this.

In the experiments, Dweck and her research assistants gave a bunch of fifth-graders a series of puzzles, puzzles easy enough that all of the kids did pretty well. When the kids finished, they were told their scores and were given a single line of praise. In a random division of the students, half were praised for their intelligence (“You must be really smart!”) and half for their effort at the task (“You must have worked really hard!”).

In several follow-up series of puzzles, of varying levels of difficulty, Dweck found that the kids who had been labeled “smart” ended up being much more risk-averse than their effort-oriented peers, much more stressed by experiences of failure, and much less able to learn from experience.

Marina Keegan probably would not have been surprised by Dweck’s results. As a Yale undergraduate Keegan wrote a fascinating and nationally acclaimed essay for the Yale Daily News (“Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” (9/30/11), about the career choices of college graduates. In particular, she focused on the roughly 25 percent of Yale’s employed graduates who have been going into finance or consulting over the last 10 years.

Keegan was shocked by this figure, given the tremendous diversity of students at Yale, and interviewed loads of people to try to understand it. She concluded that for a great many graduates, the appeal was neither the inherent interest of those jobs (many aspired to other occupations altogether) nor the need to make money to, say, pay off college loans. It was, rather, that such jobs “make us feel like we’re still successful,” as Keegan put it, still chosen, still smart. Continued validation, and not putting one’s “special” status at risk, was the main thing.

What I take away from this is another reminder that we shouldn’t pigeonhole our kids, or encourage them to think of themselves in “Flat Stanley,” single- dimensional kinds of ways. People are complicated. Life is short.

Marina Keegan died in a car crash last May, five days after her graduation from college.

Mary Cleary Kiely may be reached at parenttoparent@gazettenet.com. Her column appears on the first Tuesday of the month.

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