Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Q: My husband and I have recently moved closer to our families, and a problem that was minor has now become larger. When I was growing up, my mother assigned "roles" to me and my sisters (e.g., the good student, the social butterfly, the independent one) that were somewhat based on our personalities, but I believe were a shortcut for her to figure out how to deal with us.
We've all spent a lot of time as adults breaking out of these roles, and in many cases, when my mother's ideas have clearly been superseded, she still will just not give them up. For example, I was always the chubby sister, and now even after I have lost weight and kept it off, she still treats me that way.
She is now doing this to my children, and it's driving me nuts. She will tell me often how much my oldest son is like me and will be good at anything requiring concentration, and my younger son will be charming and a social butterfly — and she'll say it in front of them (they are 4 and 3). Most of the time I cannot formulate an immediate response and then the moment is gone.
What do I say to her when she does this? Do I draw a line, do I gently tell her I don't want her saying things like that in front of the kids?
Am I being petty here, and is this just something grandmas get to do?
A: It's not petty, it's important. Although a grandparent's impact won't equal a parent's — it's diluted for sure, just by virtue of hours of exposure and importance of the role — a sick way of sorting people still has the power to become a sickness of self-image. And, since you are upset about this, your kids will read, "This is important."
So. For the immediate response to comments, develop something you can say every time, such as, "There's no 'focused one' or 'social one' — they both have many sides." When the children aren't within earshot, spell it out for her: "I realize it's tempting to label kids 'the social one' and 'the smart one,' but when people do that to me, I feel (defensive/minimized/etc.). For that reason, I ask that you not do it around the kids."
After that conversation, your "We don't define them so narrowly" or "He's more than one trait" comments will have important context. Make sure they have prominent airtime, too. You're breaking your own habit as surely as you're trying to break Grandma's, so vigilance counts.
Something else to consider: Just as people are tempted to apply labels "to figure out how to deal with" others (I think you're right about that), they also, perhaps just as unwittingly, are tempted to seek out their own labels — to figure out how to act and how to see themselves. That's a lot of the reason it's a big deal. Your mother's comments aren't just being dropped on pavement, they're being planted in fertile ground. Understanding that might help you do the harder work of encouraging your kids to think broadly about who they are, versus settling for some convenient rubber stamp.