A friend on facebook recently asked for examples where people believed something wrong on purpose, just to improve their lives in some way.
While the idea seemed strange to me at first, I've slowly come to realize that there's something similar that I'm doing in my thinking about my kids. And I think that thing is actually very important to raising my kids well.
Unlike the original request for examples, I'm not trying to believe something I know in my heart is untrue. Instead, I'm actively trying to avoid learning certain things about my kids. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I'm actively avoiding trying to build certain models about my kids.
My kids are very young, only two and a half right now. That means that there's an enormous amount about who they are (or will be) as people that is unknown right now. Will they be interested in arts or sciences (or both)? Will they be introverts or extroverts? Will they like science fiction or mysteries?
Our kids aren't super messy when they eat. The main exception to that is yogurt. When we feed them yogurt, it gets all over their faces, their arms, their shirts. The yogurt gets everywhere. After they've finished eating it, I'll come in with a cloth to clean them up. Doing this makes it really obvious that they're using one hand more than the other. One hand is usually pretty clean, and the other is so covered in yogurt it looks like melted wax.
I actively try not to pay attention to which hand it is. I try to avoid putting together patterns about whether the messy hand changes each time they eat yogurt or not. I try to avoid pointing it out to them.
My goal is to let them develop their handedness, left or right, independently of my own preconceptions. I don't want to push them to use a hand that they're not interested in using, or to prematurely settle on using only one hand.
Especially now, during this time of covid-induced hibernation, my kids get the majority of their understanding of the world and what's good from me. How I think about them influences how I treat them, and how I treat them has an outsized impact on how they grow. I don't want my own peculiarities to unduly shape who they could be as people.
The importance of letting kids be themselves
Whether our kids are left handed or right handed isn't a huge deal (but it was historically). On the other hand, there are some personal traits that will have a major influence on my children's lives. I'm trying to avoid learning those or modeling them as well.
The biggest example of this is intelligence. There's a whole argument about what "intelligence" means for kids, how correlated intelligence in one domain is with another domain, how it changes with age, and how easy it is to determine. I want to sidestep all of that by appealing to a twin study.
Specifically, a study of my twins. They're fraternal twins, so genetically different but same environment. They look different and they act different. They also figure things out at different rates. One of my kids is much more verbal than the other, much faster in answering questions, and much better at remembering (or at least repeating) song lyrics.
In spite of how I try not to notice that disparity, it still surprised me when the disparity was disrupted. I taught the kids how to play "I spy…" the other day. The kid who is faster at answering questions and filling in song lyrics really struggled with understanding how the game is played or what the point of it was. The other kid, who is generally quieter and slower to answer questions, understood how the game is played immediately and joined in.
I've heard some parents talk about their kids as being "smart" or "slow". I don't think either of those models are very helpful to actually raising kids. To me, what seems most important is what would challenge a kid at any given moment. Regardless of what a kid is capable of now, the goal is still to raise the most competent, compassionate, and grounded kids that I can.
For me as a parent, it doesn't matter if one kid is learning something faster than another. What matters is how I can help both of them learn and grow as effectively as possible. That's going to be different for each kid, but my overall job is the same.
If I get wrapped up in comparing my kids to each other, or to some arbitrary "standard" development track, that makes it harder for me to do my real job of raising them.
On modeling humans
None of this is to say that I don't think the idea of intelligence is useful (or similar summary measures like "compassionate" or "grounded", for that matter). I actually do think summarizing a person as being "smart" can really help when you're trying to figure out whether to hire person A or person B for a job. Or when you're trying to decide what leader to elect. Or when you're thinking about who you trust to have good information about something.
If I were a perfectly fair person, this would be less of an issue. If I were actually able to use my models of the world only when they were applicable, and ignore them when they weren't applicable, then this wouldn't matter. I could go ahead and think of one of my kids as left-handed, or estimate their intelligence right now, and not let it impact how I raised them.
But I am not perfectly fair. If I start modeling a person, my model of them will influence every thought I have about them. I can't even avoid modeling them. When I notice someone answering a question quickly, that automatically leads me to thinking certain things about them. When I notice them usually using their left hand, I automatically label them left-handed.
This is why I actively try to avoid making certain observations about my kids. It's why I actively try to avoid letting certain observations coalesce into models of them. I know my job, and it's not judging them. It's nurturing them. As a human myself, that's easiest to do when I haven't already decided what they'll grow into.
Just to be clear, I also think my kids are both very smart. And caring, creative, athletic, and cute. I'm so proud of them for all of that, but those adjectives aren't useful when figuring out what games to play or what to teach them next.