Growing into or out of those childhood labels

Did you have a label slapped on you as a child? It’s common, goodness knows. In large families they are kind of useful as an identity short-cut for outsiders. I used to think that such labels were all bad, constricting and sometimes condemning us to be a certain sort of person. Now I’m toying with the opposite idea.

We’ve just had a terrific family reunion. It’s like a very large (65 people) relaxed 2-day house party plus conversazione plus school camp plus home made entertainment. After the reunion, three of my sisters, one husband and I went to the magical village of Puponga in Golden Bay (aka Shangri La) for a few days.

And there we reminisced about our childhood labels. To my astonishment, those labels are quite accurate descriptions of one aspect of our personalities even today. Guess our parents knew us fairly well.

Which is which?

Jill, the oldest, as I remember was labeled “the helpful one” or was that “the responsible one”? This is the doom and burden of oldest sisters everywhere, and is completely unfair. Yet it is true that Jill was famously helpful and thoughtful even as a child, and has spent her working life and beyond using the same skills of management and caring and communication. It goes without saying that there is far more to my beautiful oldest sister than this label, but that’s not the point.

Deirdre, number two, was “the brainy one.” As a pre-schooler she decided she wanted to be a maths teacher, and now is writing her second book on alternative economics. Brainy? It cannot be denied!

I’m number three, and one of my labels was “the dreamer.” Well deserved at the time, and hey, what else would I be, as a writer?

Prue was apparently “the pretty one” and indeed she still is! “Pretty” implies lively and friendly as well as good looking, don’t you think? But I can assure you, she is certainly not just a pretty face.

Lesley was “the quiet one” who didn’t speak at the usual age, and when she finally burst forth in speech, declared that she had hitherto had nothing to say. Where is the kernel of truth here, I wonder? Well, Lesley is a famous listener. When she listens to you, you feel 100% heard. She is not the noisiest sister. And when she speaks, she says something worth hearing.

Penny was “the little one” and she is little no longer. But she had exactly the right personality and skills to get her own way without being big: charm all the way, I tell you!

Even a harsh label can have an up-side

Not all labels are so kind and some you completely grow out of. Yet sometimes even an incongruous label can have a message for us.

Example: I was also labeled “the clumsy one”, maybe because when you are day-dreaming you tend to crash into things. Anyway, I was sent to ballet for a year. What gorgeous therapy! Strongly recommended.

I’m still dancing. And I’m still perhaps clumsy. At the family reunion one of my children (who constantly goes too far) predicted, “If anyone is going to hurt herself, it will be my mother, because she always goes too far.”

Sure enough, I came home from the family reunion with lurid bruises from acrobatics on the waterslide and a mildly uncomfortable intercostal muscle after playing volleyball for possibly the first time in my life.

I am keen on going too far. And I wouldn’t want my children to hold back either.



7 thoughts on “Growing into or out of those childhood labels

  1. Robyn Haynes says:

    Great post Rachel!

    I was just thinking about labels after reading your response to a comment I made on an earlier post. And yes, each of the kids in my family had labels according to strong personality points. I too, was called the dreamer or the ‘arty’ one. My school reports always read: could do much better if she applied herself.

    But on a more concerning note, I think that being called the ‘clumsy one’ for example, or worse, the ‘lazy one’ could be self fulfilling.

    This is especially the case with education. I always imagined myself as an average student but when I studied off-campus with no way to compare myself with other students I was delighted to find I could excel. It was a big life lesson I was eventually able to pass on to nervous mature-age students who I was coaching in preparation for an undergraduate degree.

    I would like to explore labels in one of my posts in the future if you have no objections.

  2. Of course you are right and I try never to label a child—and sometimes it happens regardless. It takes an athletic and super-positive mind to see the up-side to our own labels. Maybe we can only do it decades later. And please go right ahead and write more about labels! We have barely scratched the surface. Thanks for your comments, fellow-dreamer!

  3. Loved it! My husband hates labels, but, I, as you wrote, have come to appreciate them somewhat. I am still trying to live into some of the positive ones given to me as a child, so I also try to give my children positive ones that I believe they are capable of reaching, or at least reaching toward. Thanks for such great thoughts!

    1. Thank you Heather! It’s funny, I have (nearly always) resisted the urge to write poems about my children, feeling this might be a kind of burden. Yet they love it when I do!

  4. Léa says:

    Alas, not all such ‘tags’ carry the same meaning or weight. For those who had those tags and the fond memories to go with them, you are indeed fortunate.
    There is a brief mention of those messages in the film Pretty Woman:

    “Vivian: People put you down enough, you start to believe it.
    Edward Lewis: I think you are a very bright, very special woman.
    Vivian: The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?

    1. So true. It is only years later that we can acknowledge and dismiss the bad labels.

      1. Léa says:

        For many it turns into a lifelong battle. My work was both in Child Protection and as a private therapist. Some never do get past it.

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