It’s human tendency to categorize and sort information in ways that we can meaningfully process. Classifying things helps us be efficient – it’s the reason behind aisles in supermarkets, categories in libraries… even our houses have rooms which group objects functionally. So I can understand the temptation to apply this kind of classification system to human beings too. It’s just so easy to say X, Y, and Z are smart; I, J and K are unreliable. It let us put those people in neat boxes in our heads.
Now, a banana can be tucked safely away with the other fruits. You can be fairly confident it’s never going to change into, say, a book. A human being, on the other hand, is (hopefully) changing and evolving with time! Assigning a person a convenient label is a dangerous precedent, because, in your mind, you’ve already filed that person away. The ‘helpful’ person may be increasingly self-involved, but you’ve already decided they’re obliging, so you don’t bother challenging them. As for the ‘angry’ person you know, they’ll have to be attain sainthood before you’ll notice they haven’t actually snapped at anyone in a while.
We are especially quick to label children, for some reason. The child then has a choice – he can grow to actively rebel against the label you assign him, or, more often that not, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The child who was deemed ‘slow’ in primary continues to think academics aren’t his strong suit. The one who was considered clumsy rarely grows up to be a ballerina.
Remember the toddler who would look to adults to provide the words for everything? You could say ‘red apple’, and the child would file away that information as sacrosanct. There would be no reason for him to wonder if you knew what you were talking about, or if he could describe it in any other way. The same is true for the things we tell them about themselves too. Tell them they’re smart, and they believe it. Tell them they’re slow, they’ll believe that. Using words around young children is a tremendous responsibility; they shape the thoughts that form in their heads.
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
We live in times where parents of a certain demographic take the time to research gentle parenting on the internet. We know better, I hope, than to tell children that they are bad, or to compare them with each other outright. But as I’ve said from personal experience in my previous post, calling a child talented or intelligent can be equally self-limiting.
In fact, for some context, I grew up in a very liberated household with adults who were well-versed with the Montessori pedagogy. They remembered to praise the process, rather than the outcome – to call me a hard worker rather than clever, diligent rather than gifted. The truth is, you can word subjective observations as diplomatically as you want. You’d still be labeling. And the very point of a label is to stick!
So what words can we use to talk about our children then? The best thing, if you ask me, is to say nothing at all. Watch, observe, file observations away in your head – and prepare to be amazed as things change and they evolve. I read somewhere that an effective Montessorian may be the one who has teeth marks against the insides of her mouth from constantly biting down to stop words from coming out 😊 I truly believe the best thing we can do for our children is to wait and watch, with no inputs to colour the opinions they may come to independently…. especially about themselves.
Until the child is old enough to lend words to their own perceptions, it’s safest to only communicate truly objective facts. That way, they get to form opinions all by themselves. Imagine getting to be the first person to describe yourself – what a tremendously liberating idea!
What this means is that if you see a child comfortably reading a book, you say, “You’re reading a book.” This is all that you say, because this is all that you can objectively say. When you say, “You’re so smart!” or “You read so well!” or some variation, you aren’t telling them what they’re doing, you’re giving them a cue on how they should feel about it. You are, in a sense, programming their opinions, based on your own perceptions and experiences. Why not step out of the way, and let them arrive at their own?
It is a privilege getting to hear children express thoughts which you didn’t put in their heads! When she was around 3, G and I were in a cab. Devdutt Patnaik’s show was on the radio, and he was discussing mythology. Out of the blue, she said, “It’s not like Ravana was evil, he just made one bad choice to kidnap Sita. People make mistakes.”
It’s been fascinating getting to know – and occasionally challenge – her evolving value system. There’s a lot of satisfaction in hearing her, at 5, remind me that I don’t get to tell her what to think. She is confident enough now for conversations like this:
Me (with quite a bit of distress, because I wanted to protect her when she shared a drawing in a non-Montessori class): Why is your grass purple? Why is the sky pink?! Can you please just use normal colours for once!
G: Remember it’s my drawing? I can do it however I want to. You get to choose the colours when it’s your drawing.
One of my chullu-bhar-paani parenting moments.
While this kind of thing is precocious in itself, it is especially precious to me because she was a risk-averse child with people-pleasing tendencies not too long ago. It’s been a journey getting to this point, but that’s a post for another day. Tomorrow-day, to be specific 😊