My mom loves her label maker. It’s this little handheld label maker, and it prints out the label she puts on her cabinets and containers for coupons, cosmetics, and more. Every little place, she has labeled. We smile and laugh a little about it, and it’s fine to physically label things like this, but how often do we do the same thing to people? Allow me to explain.

As a first-grade teacher, I would take the students’ cumulative folders before the school year started and study them like I was about to take the bar exam! I’d agonize over the classroom seating chart and freak out based on reports of student behavior and parent-teacher interactions, before even meeting the children! I was planning and teaching from the place of no and the “I have to fix what’s wrong with these kids” mindset.

I learned by hard experience that it’s good to have the information, but it’s not good to be driven by the information. Sometimes we like to think that if we could just find the right label, the right diagnosis for our children’s “condition,” we could appropriately therapize or medicate them and they’d be fine. No suffering, no struggle, no disruption. But, but, but: there won’t be any growth or learning.

You remember how we talked about my student Mark last week? He helped me break free of this and other problematic behaviors as a teacher, but I had a hard time carrying that over into my calling as a parent. I worried myself sick thinking Grady and Lily had ADD or anxiety, and then I spent hours reading books and journal articles to confirm my bias! Luckily, David perceived that my label-happy inclination was not healthy, and when I shared my “findings,” he often replied “and?” — his point being that we were given this child, and our mission was to help them and mentor them rather than instantly slap on a label.

Dr. Shefali Tsabary says, “When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a ‘mini me,’ but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. For this reason, it’s important to separate who you are from who each of your children is. Children aren’t ours to possess or own in any way. When we know this in the depths of our soul, we tailor our raising of them to their needs, rather than molding them to fit our needs.”

Every child is a container with a “throbbing spirit” inside, but unlike jewelry or makeup containers, they don’t need labels to have a fulfilled existence. Yes, some children may need special care or medication, but all children have an unequivocal need for us to show up for them and allow who they are as people to make itself manifest. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding work!

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