Childhood Identity – Choose the Right Words

My family and I took a much needed vacation this last week.  Typically this leads to slightly more screen time than normal, and our younger son decided we HAD to watch Cars 3.  Again.  If you have kids, you have probably seen it.  If not, the general premise of this one (spoiler alert!) is Lightning McQueen is nearing the end of his racing career, but he refuses to believe it is over.  He takes on a coach named Cruz, who through a variety of methods tries to get Lightning back into the right mindset for racing.  Throughout the movie, you learn that it isn’t just Lightning who needs a change in mindset, but Cruz as well.  All of her life she was told she was NOT a racer, so she believed it.  No one had told her otherwise.  By the end of the movie Cruz is on the course, taking over for Lightning.  She begins to doubt herself until Lightning gets on the radio and tells her, “You are a Racer.  Use that.”

How many times have we been told we are a certain way?  You are really smart.   You are funny.  You are a loner.  You are shy.  You are great with kids.  You are terrible.  Everyone tends to have an opinion about who YOU are.  But how does that affect how you see yourself?  Many times we replay these remarks in our minds, and it begins to shape our identity.  We begin to let how others view us affect how we view ourselves.

As a pediatrician we see this frequently in the office.  A parent will come in with their young child.  As I enter the room the child may pull away toward their parent or turn toward the wall.  The parent may simply state, “Oh, she is just shy.”  And we move on with our visit.  However, what just happened there?  The child heard their parent voice an opinion about themselves and this gets replayed in their brain.  Eventually the child starts to self-identify as shy.  Most likely this same scenario plays out at home when company comes by, family visits, or the child meets new kids at school.  The “shy” label gets reinforced each time, and this leads to the further belief that the child is, indeed, shy.  

This also occurs when our child gets in trouble at home.  “You are being so bad.”  “You always act naughty at bed time.”  You.  You.  You.  And as we tell our child this, the identity sets in.  You may be saying these things to instill some slight shame in your child, hoping they will bounce back and want to do better the next time.  But that is not how a child’s brain works.  They take in everything around them as fact; if they are constantly hearing how “bad” they are, or how they “always mess up” in certain situations, that identity sticks with them.  Soon they don’t try to act the “right” way.  They act the way they have been told they are.  

The word identity comes from the concept of how a person thinks about themselves in that moment.  However, this is not a fixed event.  How you think about yourself today is probably very different than how you thought about yourself in junior high or high school.  Identity is an ever shifting concept for the brain, which allows us to constantly help our child mold their sense of self as well.  Utilizing positive descriptors is a huge benefit for kids.  How many times has your toddler pronounced, “I don’t need this anymore because I am a Big Boy/Girl?”  They say this due to us talking about it frequently with them.  “You are such a big boy for going potty!”  “You are such a big girl for sleeping in your big girl bed!”  And so on.  We use these types of positive identifiers as a means to get our kids to do certain tasks or behaviors.  However, we forget to use these words as a way to mold our child’s sense of self as well. 

Keep track of what you say to your child.  Come up with three or four words you want your kid to use to shape their identity – brave, smart, kind, happy, helpful, etc.  Then start to place this into your daily language with them.  Praise simple acts with these words.   After doing this for a couple weeks, see how your child starts to act.  Do they use different words to talk about themselves?  Do they act differently in certain situations?  You may be surprised how much can change with just a few simple words. 

We also have to pay attention to how we identify ourselves as parents.  What are some things you say to yourself as you self-identify as a parent?  Being an imperfect parent used to be a concern for me.  I used to tell myself this was a bad thing, but as I grow with it the identity hasn’t changed; however, the way I FEEL about that identity has shifted dramatically.  I don’t beat myself up about it anymore.  I accept that role and make the best of it.  You should too.  

As Lightning McQueen would say, “Let’s just cruise.”  At least I think he did.  I don’t know.  Let me go ask my four-year-old.  He would know. 

Imperfect Dad, MD

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