During the years 1929 until 2006, was conducted around the world. From islands off the coast of Africa, to areas of India, to preschoolers in the U.S., social scientists showed people two pictures. One picture was of a spiky ball. The other was a curvy blob. The scientists then asked locals which one they would call “kiki” and which one they would call “bouba.” Almost without fail, no matter the time, the place or the language—there was a strong preference for calling the spiky object “kiki” and the curvy object “bouba.”
This study fascinated me. Imagine, there are things we all agree are intrinsically so. What other things in our world are so finite? So definable, no matter your age, culture or gender? Spiky objects have sharp spiky sounds. Curvy objects have slow round sounds.
My next thought was one only a mother could have. My daughters are like Kiki and Bouba. And while I know labeling your kids is a bad idea, I just couldn’t help myself. Their personalities are so distinctive.
Lucy, my eldest, has a sharp spark, long silky brown hair, angular elbows and sparkly green eyes. She was a wide-eyed baby who never slept. She can name and classify every dinosaur ever discovered. She climbs trees and has an extensive nature collection of deer antlers, honeycomb and turtle shells that clutter our patio. She’s my Kiki.
Annabel, my youngest, has soft skin, curly blond fluff-hair, a round belly and a warm smile. Her first word was a happy “hi” and her favorite food is cupcakes. If given the chance, she would spend all day with her books and puppies. She’s my Bouba.
When distant relatives ask, “What’s Annabel like? Does she get along with her sister?” I relay the scientific study of Kiki and Bouba and how it relates to my daughters. Of course she gets along with her sister—she’s a soft fluffy cloud.
“Annabel is just so sweet. She’s the sugar to Lucy’s spice,” I said.
And it’s not just me who see this. Upon meeting my children, a southern and cordial family friend said, “It’s like you have a snow white and a rose red.”
Lucy and Annabel are different in so many perceptible ways. As I have already labeled them Kiki and Bouba, I subconsciously have labeled them in other ways too.
Lucy as “the bright one” and Annabel as “the lovable one.”
Lucy as “the one who will do things in life” and Annabel as “the one who will give me grandchildren.”
I know labeling your kids is a bad idea, so I’ve never said it out loud, not until now.
My AHA moment came at an inopportune time.
I applied for my first full-time job since my children were born. It was a perfect job for me—flexible hours, a combination of my passions, and at a non-profit that valued children and work-life balance. But as the interview process went on, instead of feeling grateful that I was their favored candidate, I felt a panic. I couldn’t accept this job. It was in middle management. Those two words, “middle management,” were everything I had told myself I wouldn’t be—but why?
Then, I remembered the first time I realized my father labeled me.
I was a freshman in college, in the gravelly parking lot of a steakhouse on the side of US Highway 30 in Indiana, when I asked my dad what he thought I would do with my life.“You’ll probably settle down, have a family and a job in middle management,” he said with complete sincerity.
I squinted my eyes. Had I not been raised to be a polite, female Midwesterner I may have spit on him. Didn’t he see me as I saw myself? A thought leader? A trailblazer? A creative soul? Fifteen years later, as a married mother of two small children, I still never had a job that would be perceived as middle management. That was on purpose. I freelanced. I worked for quirky start-ups. I ran from large organizations with layers of management. Until now.
I ended up accepting the job, and I love it. But I almost didn’t because I thought it was predictable or mundane, rather than a perfect fit. It turns out my dad was right. I did settle down, have a family and get a job in middle management. I fought so hard to make him wrong that I almost missed out on an opportunity that has made me feel incredibly fulfilled and happy.
Like language, children change. Last week Annabel told me she loved Superman. She also hit me and pulled my hair when I told her I wouldn’t buy her a lollipop at the drugstore. This was not the soft Bouba that I knew.
Today, Lucy taught her little sister how to skateboard. And, at bedtime I found her spraying perfume and putting foam curlers in her hair. Kiki was not patient, nor did she care much about personal hygiene.
My perceptions are not wrong. I know what my daughters look like and how they normally behave. We create labels to make sense out of complex pieces of data. What’s more complex than a developing child? Maybe I need to do more research on actual personality development, rather than basing an analysis of their very souls on a linguistics study.
My children aren’t, after all, 2-dimensional objects. Perhaps I can pull my labels back a bit in ways that allow Lucy and Annabel to be the people they’re meant to be—without my meddling.