Written by Julie Hill Barton for Brain, Child Magazine
When my first daughter was born, I fell madly in love with her. I remember crying in my hospital bed, my dad whispering, "You OK?"
"Yes," I said, wiping my tears. "I knew I would love her. But I didn't know I'd love her this much."
That baby is 8 years old now, has a 5-year-old sister, and I still vividly remember how blessed I felt that day, how confident I felt that I could raise a strong, kind, loving, self-assured girl. I always had a deep-down faith that I knew how to teach my girls right from wrong, kindness from thoughtlessness, respect from carelessness.
That is, until our oldest daughter reached kindergarten. At our spring parent-teacher conference, we learned that our sweet girl was sometimes monopolizing her best friend, could be grumpy with peers and had rolled her eyes at the teacher. The teacher suggested our daughter needed to see the school counselor. When the conference ended, and I managed to extract myself from the tiny chair, I walked outside and burst into tears. What had I done wrong?
It has taken me almost four years and lots of drama to understand that all of this has very little to do with me. I'm doing my best. My daughters have vastly different personalities, and that's just how they came. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and both are, at the core, nothing but good.
My oldest is in third grade now. I've watched as she has learned, through trial and error, to be a good friend. She is strong and confident, but she gets hurt sometimes, too. It's all part of that sticky process of growing up.
In second grade, she asked her best-friend-since-kindergarten if they could have a playdate. Her friend replied, "I can't have any more playdates with you because my mom says you're mean." My daughter came home with eyes as big as saucers, collapsed into bed and wept.
That was a year ago, and she still talks about it. She still asks me if she's a mean person. She was 7 years old when this happened, and I fear that the trauma of this one word being uttered about her by one careless adult will forever be etched in her heart, making her question her own goodness.
I called that mom, who was my friend, and she mumbled that our daughters were both mean sometimes. She tried to make a joke about girl drama, but I wasn't laughing. I hung up feeling sick and guarded, and hyper-aware of how nonchalantly we, as a society, label children.
A short list of things I've heard parents say about other children: "He's a shy kid." "She's such a sweetheart!" "Ugh, that kid's a nightmare." "She must have ADHD or something." When we say these things, it's the emotional equivalent of juggling knives in the NICU. We're putting children in narrow boxes, cornering them into behaviors and personalities that they'll then feel that they must inhabit. We all experienced this as children in the '60s and '70s. Isn't it time we changed the course for our children?
I can't say it clearly enough, both to myself and to other parents: There's no mean one. There's no nice one. There's no sweet one. There's no nasty one. They're all little imperfect, nascent beings with every single one of the above qualities healthily intact. As my daughter's third grade teacher says, "Label the behavior, not the child."
I was in school just a few days ago and watched my daughter walk by her former best friend in the hallway. They waved at each other with a longing so sweet and strong that I wanted to hug them both, tell them it was OK to be friends, that it was their choice and no one else's, and that they were both nothing but walking goodness, simply and beautifully learning their way in the big, wide world.
Julie Hill Barton is a writer and mother of two daughters in Northern California. She has an MA in Women's Studies and an MFA in Writing. She is currently writing a memoir about battling depression with the help of a remarkable therapy dog. You can read more about her at http://www.byjuliebarton.com.