When Ethan first entered public school, I honestly did not know what to expect out of him. He is not the natural student that Emma was, and at home he's the one who gets called out the most for not listening or following directions. I was so nervous that his teachers wouldn't be able to see his loving, energetic, encouraging character traits as positives in the world of test scores and quiet single-file lines.
But they did. He has had two excellent, gentle teachers. Sometimes I think his first grade teacher understands him better than I do! She loves him to bits.
Still, today at his first grade award ceremony, I did't know what to expect.
He walked across the stage while his teacher named all the certificates he received in his packet. Good citizenship, more than 50 advanced reading points, some other stuff I don't remember because I was trying to take pictures...
We clapped and cheered, and loved our hearts out at that little guy from our seats in the school cafeteria.
But then this happened.
These are the children who were able to maintain an average of 95 or above in every subject.
And then there was this.
These are the children who had the top three scores in reading and math in the entire first grade. Ethan was third place in math.
I stood there snapping pictures, bursting with pride. But there was another feeling as well. A nagging guilt.
Because I realized that I had labeled him. Emma was the "smart one" and Ethan was the "sweet one". I didn't mean to. It started out as a way to showcase Ethan's best qualities, even though they weren't always as showy as his sister's. This is not a bad thing, right? Kids need to know what their parents like about them. They need to be told what they are good at.
Hands Free Mama wrote an excellent article called "Children Who Shine From Within" that shares a perspective on children with different talents and gifts that aren't quite as flashy as others'. I love this article. The heart behind it is making sure that you know what your kids' value is, and how to share that with them. But what I realized today was that I took that too far. In my heart I labeled Emma the butterfly and Ethan the firefly. Emma gets good grades, is great at art, and loves to sing. Her talents are easily showcased in the modern academic world. She spreads her colorful wings and people take notice. Ethan is enthusiastic, empathetic, nurturing, and the friendliest kid I know. There aren't tests for those things. His light shines from within. And sometimes you have to be looking in the right place to even see it.
But today, my firefly spread his wings, and they were as colorful as any butterfly's. I have to be careful to give my kids the space to become whoever they are supposed to become. Gifts and talents should be a source of freedom, not a label on a box that I put them into. If I label Emma as the "smart one", will she feel free to pursue sports, take risks, or do something just for the fun of it? If I mark Ethan as the less-shiny of the two, will he ever feel free to shine when it's his time?
My kids are as complex as any adult, and I shouldn't confine them with simple labels or descriptions. Even though they are one way today, I want to give them an environment where it's okay to show me an entirely different side of themselves tomorrow. Today, Ethan showed me that he's not a butterfly, a firefly, or any other limiting insect metaphor. He's my hard-working, math-loving, toothless-grinning first grader. And I can't wait to get to know him even better.