Dear Carolyn: When I was growing up, my mother assigned “roles” to me and my sisters (e.g., the good student, the social butterfly, the independent one) that were somewhat based on our personalities.
We’ve all spent a lot of time as adults breaking out of these roles, and in many cases, when my mother’s ideas have clearly been superseded, she still will just not give them up.
She is now doing this to my children. She will tell me often how much my oldest son is like me and will be good at anything requiring concentration, and my younger son will be charming and a social butterfly — and she’ll say it in front of them (they are 4 and 3). What do I say to her when she does this?Am I am being petty here, and is this just something grandmas get to do?
It’s not petty, it’s important. Although a grandparent’s impact won’t equal a parent’s a sick way of sorting people still has the power to become a sickness of self-image. And, since you are upset about this, your kids will read, “This is important.”
So. For the immediate response to comments, develop something you can say every time, such as, “There’s no ‘focused one’ or ‘social one’ — they both have many sides.” When the children aren’t within earshot, spell it out for her: “I realize it’s tempting to label kids ‘the social one’ and ‘the smart one,’ but when people do that to me, I feel (defensive/minimized/etc.). For that reason, I ask that you not do it around the kids.”
Your mother’s comments aren’t just being dropped on pavement, they’re being planted in fertile ground. Understanding that might help you do the harder work of encouraging your kids to think broadly about who they are, vs. settling for some convenient rubber stamp.