Volume 18, Issue 4: Childer
Typecasting Your Kids
One common human failing is the fault of seeing only what you expect to see. You make up your mind beforehand about
the restaurant, or the movie, or the book, and then when you finally check it out firsthand, you are not surprised. And you are
not surprised because you are not going to be surprised. Your mind is settled on that score, and it would take a whole series
of remarkable events to change it.
An actor who has a roaring success in his first film is often worried about precisely this problemif he is "typecast" as
an action hero, or detective, or whatever, then everyone will expect to see him in that kind of role, and the viewing public is
stern, disciplining for transgressions. If he tries to do something else, that film flops (even if it might have succeeded as his
first film). We are all familiar with the problem.
The difficulty is that we also do this with our kids. Instead of seeing certain tendencies and failings when they are
little, and working with them to overcome those difficulties, we rather decide at some point that this is "just the way they
are." Having decided this, that is what we will definitely see from that point on out. The child is typecast.
Say that the fourth child is really insecure during his junior-high years and regularly compares himself with his
older brother. This is a problem, and it is the kind of problem that his parents should help him address. When it is not
addressed on his end, he is still comparing himself twenty years later. If it is not addressed in the minds of his parents, then they
will assume he is comparing himself to his brother twenty years later, even if he has long ago grown out of that. They have
a certain paradigm that settles how they see him.
This paradigm or pattern can be of any shape. "Oh," Mom says. "You were always the
(fill in the blank) one." This can be the anxious one, the pretty one, the competitive one, the timid one, the ungrateful one, and so on. Instinctive knowledge
that the whole family shares can be the fruit of many years of wise living together (in other words, it is true knowledge). But, on
the other hand, it could also be a family-wide conspiracy to lock a particular member of the family in her "place," and to do
so, not on the basis of real knowledge, but rather on the basis of the raw power to decide. This "place" to which the
hapless victim is consigned was decided on when she was a toddler. Kids can easily be held hostage by such typecasting, and it
should come as no surprise to anyone if they entirely give up caring what the family thinks of any of their behavior.
The casting decision can be made on the basis of birth order. Thus, a little brother can find himself still responding like
a kid brother when he is in his sixties. The decision can be made on the basis of some striking and memorable incident. Thus,
a kid who got fired from a lawn-mowing business when he was thirteen is still the "lazy one" when he has dealt with
that character flaw several decades before. Or the kid who almost drowned because he foolishly disregarded some advice
about where to swim can find this incident a metaphor for everything he does.
There is a difference between seeing someone accurately, on the one hand, and trying to control them on the basis
of inaccuracies on the other. If an older brother doesn't want to invest money in his younger brother's fifth failed
business venture in a row, this is simply prudence. But if he is concerned about whether his brother will really "follow through" and
his concern is based on a failed tinker-toy project, he is simply looking for an excuse to stay uninvolved. And that is what
these paradigms frequently do for usthey provide us with the excuses we want.
When your children are grown, or nearly so, one of the things parents should take care to do is run a
current inventory. Are we seeing our children faithfully? Have we trained them up for maturity, and thus are we expecting them to grow
from immaturity to maturity? Are we willing to have our minds changed about the "way" our kids are? Have any of our
children voiced frustration over the way they are seen by the rest of the family? Have we done anything with such concerns
besides airily dismissing them?
I am not arguing here that children automatically
change as they grow. For some, growing up is simply an exercise
in getting bigger. Nothing really happens. The "typecasting" that happens to them is richly deserved. But sometimes,
young people do change as they grow, and in some cases it amounts to a complete transformation. As a general rule, young
people are more likely to be the ones who do the changing. Older people (parents included) tend to be settled in their ways, and it
is too disruptive for them to change their minds. In other words, it is often harder for parents to change their minds about
their children's behavior than it is for the children to change the behavior itself. As the parents insist on the need for
"changes," they need keep in mind that there is at least a possibility that they are the ones who should be experiencing them.
Just a thought. Just a possibility.