My daughter is seven today (hip-happy birthday, Mae!). Elbows deep in the party bag assembly line, it’s got me thinking about that old maxim ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’.
It’s always tempting to go a-wondering about what someone will be like when they’re all grown-up. And yet maybe dangerous too?
In my grandpa’s big Irish family, you got to seven and it wasn’t only your personality type but your career that was pinned to your chest like a badge of honour. My grandpa’s label of ‘Gentle and quiet’…‘So Catholic priest’ almost rendered me non-existent. (Thankfully, for me, he abandoned his priestly training halfway through.)
Eighty years later, it still goes on, if less directly. You hear parents talking about ‘the clever one’, ‘the pretty one’, ‘the sociable one’ in their family. Children are often defined by their behaviour: ‘completely stubborn’, ‘can never share’. Or by the subjects they are best at.
In some shape or form, I know it’s something I can be guilty of myself. I’ll hear myself saying to my son he’s like me or jokingly telling my daughter she’s competitive.
So why do we have this tendency to pin people’s personalities to the post? Is it our way of trying to make sense of those we know? Maybe it brings us security, even perceived closeness, if we believe we have the measure of the people we love (as well as those we don’t, aka celebrity culture)? At a deeper, darker level, maybe it brings us an idea of ownership or participation in others’ lives that we fear we don’t have?
But as Matilda says (well, she does in the musical): “Just because I find myself in this story, It doesn’t mean that everything is written for me”. Packaging children up into a box rubber stamped this is who you are and will always be – will surely stifle a child’s growth…limit their self-belief.
Speaking personally, I can imagine how others might draw my personality, yet equally I know that for every trait others spot in me, I am also the complete opposite. I can be very laid back, yes, but at times a little more serious. I appear quite sociable – but people rarely see the 80% of me that’s quiet and solitary (well, they’re not there to see it!). So I really don’t like being boxed into ‘Alex is this’, or ‘Alex is that’. Because I know I can be so many things at so many times. And I also know I’m still growing and learning and poking the parts of my brain that I haven’t fully entered yet.
Ironically, within books, as readers, as writers, we never fix or pin people. We want our characters to develop and metamorphose. To journey with them as they travel from one fixed point to end up at another, way over there – and even then we often want to be left guessing where they will go next. We liberate them and simply enjoy watching them grow and adapt.
So while it might be fun to draw the adult version of my daughter based on the personality traits I see now (I won’t embarrass her by listing them), I’ll try my best not to. I’ll accept there’ll be many parts of Mae that will keep surprising me, and I’ll make a concerted effort just to go along for the journey. One thing I do know: it’s got to be her story to write.