I hate to admit it, but sometimes, I have trouble recognizing my own kid.
The most recent example of this occurred recently while I was sitting on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game. I watched him attack the ball with a fierce, menacing stare previously reserved for dental appointments and wearing fancy shirts.
He kicked the ball away from a much taller kid and proceeded to score a goal. I was proud—yes!—but I was also confused. Because honestly, I had no idea who that intense competitor was.
A year ago, I would have told you that my older son, then 5, had zero interest in sports. He sang songs from Hamilton and recited facts about the US Presidents. He liked to draw and talk about history. My husband and I figured he wouldn’t be an athlete, and we were totally okay with that.
Then one day, a friend gave him an NFL sticker book, and what started as an obsession with collecting as many stickers as possible turned into an obsession with sports. This kid, who had a history of tripping over his own feet (we have a video of him at age 3 to prove it), all of a sudden became Lionel Messi out on the field. I honestly spent much of his first soccer game staring at him in utter disbelief.
When my son was born, I immediately started trying to figure out what kind of kid he would be. In the hospital, I searched his face for signs that he looked like me or my husband, and everyone who visited did the same. Already we wanted to know—would he be a Dobrow or a DiMarco?
I soon learned that I was not alone in this. It seemed that all of my parent friends were doing the same thing: trying to peg their kids as one thing or another, to understand their personalities and tell others about it.
At work, new patients would often introduce themselves to me by quickly rattling off a list of their kids’ most notable traits: “There’s Daniel, 5, who’s very serious, and Ava, 3, my wild child, and of course little Lila, the princess.”
Why do many parents seem to have this desire to peg our kids as one thing or another at such a young age?
Perhaps it’s because it helps us feel more in control. If we think we know who our kids are, then we think we can predict their behaviors and moods, and respond appropriately. This helps reduce our considerable anxiety about parenting.
But the problem with this is that kids are constantly changing and evolving. As soon as we peg them as one thing—and adjust our behaviors and energies and purchases accordingly—there is the potential that they have already moved on to something else.
My son’s soccer performance shouldn’t have surprised me. He’s defied my expectations numerous times now.
There was the unilateral rejection of the fun art class, the adverse reaction to trampoline jumping, the brief and inexplicable obsession with bus yards. In every situation, my son’s reactions were the opposite of what I’d expected.
It’s become clear that I can’t always successfully predict how my son will respond to new experiences. I had to stop myself before I bought the NY Giants bedspread I’d been ogling on Amazon, because I don’t know if my son will be into football in six months. He might like the Giants or he might like Minecraft or he might like singing. I can’t peg him.
I also can’t go “all in” on this soccer thing—signing him up for traveling soccer, for example—until I know for sure that HE is “all in.” The last thing I want to do is buy all the gear, sign up for all the teams, and then get angry with him for suddenly deciding that soccer is not his thing. I don’t want him to feel any pressure that he has to love soccer (or anything else, for that matter).
As adults, we operate under the assumption that we can change ourselves. Entire industries are built around this premise, as are entire schools of psychotherapy (cognitive-behavioral therapy, the type of therapy I practice, included).
We actively encourage our loved ones and friends to make changes in their careers, their hobbies and their relationships. We expect and hope that adults can change.
I think we need to extend this same courtesy to our kids. For me, this means recognizing that I need to give my son room and space to decide who he is. And while he’s deciding who he is, I need to stop myself from trying to peg him as one thing or another, much as it might help alleviate my anxiety. I’ve got to approach him with an open mind, making it clear that I’m okay with whoever and whatever he decides to be at that moment.
And of course, let him know that I’ll always be here for him, waiting on the sidelines, ready to join him on whatever adventure he chooses next.