My partner was raised Conservative Jewish and I am a Catholic-turned-atheist. We recently talked to our kids about this and now our 7-year-old is obsessed with labeling people—by religion, nationality, sexual orientation, body type, skin color.
I know he’s just curious, but it feels borderline offensive at times. What should I do?
Hello My Name Is Confused
Please get thee to an art supply store. I need you to pick up a few things. Namely:
3 different colored pens
5 packs of post-it notes
a sheet of stickers
wine in a box
a bushel of patience**
*/** the last two you can probably download onto your phone or search for like Sisyphus for the rest of your life.
Now listen, I am no DIY artsy-crafty guru. My textile of choice is glue and the one and only piecrust I made cracked a tooth before retiring as a doorstop. But this is a fun game I just made up that anyone can play, regardless of age, race, religion, or grammatical prowess. (For those following along at home, if you have participants who are non-verbal, just skip the pen part and stick the labels on, then charade it out.)
Round one: Give your kid a pack of post-it’s and one of the pens and put 10 minutes on the stopwatch. Tell him to label anything and everything he sees and to be as specific as possible—the wall, the floor, the shoe-junkmail-lost-keys pile, the guinea pig cage, the stain on the couch from when the guinea pig got out of the cage. Encourage your kid to label parts of himself, too—ears, elbows, birthmark on left calf. This can and should be fun. No worries about spelling. Just as many labels as possible before the timer goes off.
Sticker break! Everyone participating gets a sticker, just cuz.
Drinking of wine in a box and going to the bathroom is also encouraged. And depending on how much time you have to devote to this exercise, you can have your kid give you a gallery tour of all the labels he’s made. Try to just look, without commenting or correcting. This is like a little stroll through his mind.
I’ll be honest, labels often confuse and offend me, too. But I do think they are part of the maturation process. From the moment of birth, we are each struggling to understand how we fit in to this Big Picture. The first few months we still don’t know the difference between ourselves and that yummy nipple. So from about ages 1-100, we are trying on all sorts of personas and status updates, giving ourselves names like Gefilte, Gef, Geffy, parselybreath, SWG, student, Jewess, ice cream scooper, part-time lover, loser, winner. You can do a little inventory for yourself, too. It’s pretty humbling and helpful to see how fleeting these identifications can be.
And just for reference, here are a few labels that can save lives:
Round two: Have your kid choose a different colored pen and put another 10 minutes on the stopwatch. This time, he has to add a different sensory detail to each of his labels. (i.e., bumpy, soft, hot, smells like a guinea pig.)
Warning: he might not get through all the labels he did in the first round and that is OK. Round two can be a little tricky. Or intoxicating.
I was once very much in love with a man who spent a lot of time in bars. So I pulled up a stool next to him and together we played one of those video games where you have to look at two almost-identical pictures and point out the differences.
A missing eyebrow.
A mysterious shadow.
We clocked in a lot of hours on that screen, searching for all the ways these pictures were mismatched. Which of course, in hindsight, is a great metaphor for how our relationship dissolved. But I don’t regret those soggy memories, because my ex was a keen observer, and he challenged me to really look closely.
Again, option to look through your kid’s labels or not, just please do this without judgment.
OK, this is when it gets real, yo. Fifteen minutes on the clock. New color pen. Tell your kiddo to write a few words describing how this thing makes him feel. Sad, happy, angry, itchy, and his adjectives have to be followed by a reason. This is an emotional label.
Some of these may come easily, as in:
white and silver
happy and hungry because I can smell the peanut butter crackers inside
The potted plant or broken piece of linoleum could be harder to crack. But if he sticks with it—and really, if you try to do it too—you will find some emotional significance to each object.
greenish brown, limp
calm and cozy and a little sad because it reminds me of drinking mint tea with my mom and she would say, “Darn it, I really need to water that one”
Hello My Name Is Confused, if I haven’t made it clear yet, I think you have a fantastic kid and you were really smart and generous to tell him about your beliefs. Yes, this game is designed to get him labeling at home as opposed to at the public pool, but he may be in this phase for a while. Just make it clear that some people don’t like being labeled and that there are lots of layers you cannot see. You can also tell him that beliefs and labels evolve. So at some point, he may notice a bright new logo with the words NEW AND IMPROVED! This is good news.
Jew, Catholic, Atheist, Muslim, Mormon.
Black, White, LGBT, Cis, Low-Sodium, Double-Stuffed, Kosher, Special Needs, Some Assembly Required.
Round four, you get the blindfolds out and start all over again.
With love and schmaltz,
Have a question for Gefilte? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you might just get an answer.