I was reminded over the weekend of the folly of pigeon-holing my children and seeing them as a collation of stereotypes rather than as fully formed individuals.
Have you ever done one of those personality tests? If you work in a corporate or ‘team’ environment, the odds are you probably have. There’s Myers-Briggs, where you’re assigned a four-letter combination of personality preferences that (a) defines who you are and (b) looks like the Scrabble Rack from Hell. Or Belbin, which determines what your preferred team role is, assigning labels such as Completer Finisher (aka the Anally Retentive One), Shaper (aka the Impatient One) and Plant (aka the Flitty Creative One).
There are many of these tests with the same basic aim: to put everyone into a neatly defined box where we can all agree how jolly fabulous it is to embrace the differences between types while secretly thinking that our individual category is clearly the best one to be in.
More alike than unlike
The very nature of giving people labels is helpful in terms of understanding why different people behave in different ways, but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of understanding people. In reality, no one fits perfectly into a particular category. No two people are completely the same or completely different, no matter how convenient it is to label them as such.
And this is my mistake.
I do it all the time. I’ve certainly done it on this blog, particularly when it comes to differentiating my two sons. Isaac is the academic, the geek, the chatterbox, the non-sporty one, Mr Rules and Regulations, the kind, attentive and sensitive older brother who is always willing to offer up a hug. Toby is the creative one, the quiet introvert who loves nothing more than a ‘pyjama day’ and a big box of cars, the one who keeps his emotions in check and himself to himself.
It’s easy for me to talk about them in these terms, building a picture of both boys based on a few character traits. It’s also wrong. Their preferences are what they are. But their behaviours are shaped by the environment and the context of where they are, and there’s more similarity between the two than I give them credit for.
Here’s an example from last weekend that made me see Toby and Kara in a completely different light.
I often have one or two of the children to myself at particular times during the weekend. Usually when I have two kids it tends to be Isaac and Toby. But on Sunday I had Toby and Kara for the entire day – a combination I’ve not previously had together for more than an hour or so at a time.
After a small hitch where Toby expressed his preference for a pyjama day (i.e. threw a tantrum), we headed off to one of our local adventure/farm parks for the day. And it was here that I saw a different side to both of them.
In the past, the relationship between our two youngest kids has often been fractious. Kara worships Isaac, and uses Toby as a punching bag. (Literally.) Toby withdraws into himself and leaves Isaac to play the caring big brother.
Here, without Isaac, the dynamic was completely different. Kara was all smiles around her brother, following his lead and enjoying his company. Toby opened up, putting an arm around Kara’s shoulder (both literally and metaphorically) and taking the lead while showing consideration for her needs. At lunchtime he ran off without being asked to grab ketchup and napkins for both of them. Basically, he was everything that Isaac would normally be in the same circumstances – becoming the big brother when his own big brother wasn’t there.
All of a sudden, I saw Toby in a completely different light. But that’s the thing. It’s still the same Toby, but blossoming in a different context that allows him to show off other facets of his personality. They’ve always been there, but they’re not always evident. Or perhaps they’ve been there for me to see, but I’ve unconsciously ignored them because I’ve been unwittingly putting other labels on him.
Our kids are so much more than the sum of their most obvious personality traits. This is a good thing. Why put children in a specific box at the point where they’re just starting to spread their wings and discover themselves?
I’m not making that mistake again.