“And the Mountains Echoed,” by Khaled Hosseini was the book I raced to finish in an effort to participate in the book club meeting that I never attended because I got sick. It was a good book and I’m glad I read it because it got me thinking about human nature and our children. There are many complicated characters in the book, characters that prove selfish and selfless, loving and stifling, well-meaning and ill intentioned, generous and thieving. They are, in a word, incredibly human, like us.
I met a woman, this year, who refers to her two year old in various ways, such as “the problem child” and “my special child” (and not in a positive way). She is convinced that her child is something out of the ordinary because she throws fits in food stores, acts up in gymnastics, and wants to do what she wants to do. A typical two year old and the total opposite of her older obedient first child, who comes quickly running as her mother ticks off 1…2…, for all the playground to hear.
I find this woman difficult to talk to, not only because of her over dramatic characterization of what appears to be a very normal two year old, but no matter what I may say in response to her monologues on the evilness of her child, she just continues talking at me, like I just don’t get it. Whatever. She has no idea. So, when, after a fifteen minute filibuster, she announced that she was just going to have to accept that her daughter was going to be blah, blah, blah. I finally said, “You don’t know who she will be, she’s two years old.”
As you may have guessed, she wasn’t phased by remark, but she was done talking at that point. She thanked me for listening to “all her problems” and started her militant count down after her daughter didn’t immediately come running when she called her name.
As people, and especially as a parents, it’s very easy to get into the habit of labeling our children. The good one. The strong one. the smart one. The responsible one. The trouble maker. Don’t we just love to give people labels? We mark them up good, and for better or for worse, they carry our superimposed epithets with them for the rest of their lives.
The problem with labeling, besides mistaking a two-year old for a troubled child and never seeing her, or letting her see herself, as anything else, is that human beings aren’t static one dimensional characters. We’re complicated to the core, carrying with us perceived injustices, triumphs, losses, and experiences, along with our own preprogrammed DNA. There are very few of us that are all good or all bad, yet it’s easier to label people than to reconcile the fact that a bad person can do good things, or that a good person can do bad things, the politician who brings good changes but is caught taking bribes, the drug dealer that passes some money to the poor, the dad that can’t be bothered with his children, though is always there to help his friends, the woman who gossips, but is at your door with chicken soup when you’re sick. I could go on and on, but you know what I mean. You know these people, because you’re one of them. I’m one of them. No one is just one thing and no one person is perfect.
I thought of this, today, because of my daughter. She was feeling slighted by her brothers because they wouldn’t let her join in on an early morning Wii game because she didn’t know how to play. Feelings hurt, she went to the closet where we keep the art supplies and drew a picture of her and her brothers. She wanted to show them that even though they left her out, she still loved them.
Her oldest brother, the one most often labeled compassionate, kind, and empathic, the one, who during one of my middle of the night coughing fits came to my room and asked me if I needed his nebulizer and then got me a glass of water, laughed at her effort, causing her more tears and embarrassment. Her other brother taking a cue from the older one, snickered at her. They both walked away and left her crying.
Except one of them couldn’t just walk away. The snickerer, the one most often labeled the nudge, the starter of fights, the creator of anarchy, the one, who as he’s getting in trouble, loves to yell that he doesn’t care, hesitated. He peered back at her and looked at me to see what I would do. I didn’t force him to go to her, or even encourage him. I just said, you have the power to make her feel better.
And that’s just what he did.
I overheard him asking her about her drawing, telling her he liked it. He asked which one he was. When she said, no one wants to play with me, followed by a dramatic, you don’t love me, I heard a kind voice replying, “I love you. You just didn’t know how to play.” He sat with her, patiently making her feel better, until he made her smile.
Today, my middle son was the boy that I know, but many don’t see because he often goes missing behind the label others want to give him. Today, I watched one of my sons be cruel and another compassionate. Yet neither of them is always cruel or always compassionate. If, as their mother, I take the easy way out and excuse one’s indiscretions as an anomaly and one’s act of kindness as random, and resort to sweeping generalizations when considering their character, then I fail to see their beauty, and strength, as well as their weaknesses, and then they may fail to see these qualities in themselves.
My children are as complicated as any other human being. They are different people on different days, in different situations. My middle son, just as I’m sure the woman’s toddler, is way more visible when he is raising hell, teasing, and fighting back. The kind, shy, insecure, compassionate boy can be easy to miss, especially if I choose not to look because I’ve already branded him not to be. He doesn’t advertise his good like he does his bad, which in many ways says more about him than anything thing else. But, today, even if just for a small moment, he was one little girl’s hero and I was his proud mom.