Children in families are often labeled, such as the “brainy one” or the one with the best personality or the athletic one. Those labels clearly influence the behavior of the child labeled as well as those around him or her. But what happens when the child becomes an adult–does the label still matter?
Interestingly, adults often try to shed their former skin, creating a different identity than the one their family molded them into. Below we excerpt a New York Times article that examines the ways childhood identities affect middle-age, and the ways individuals deal with their present lives.
* * *
A recent study, which found that eldest children end up, on average, with slightly higher I.Q.’s than younger siblings, was a reminder that the fight for self-definition starts much earlier than freshman year. Families, whatever the relative intelligence of their members, often treat the firstborn as if he or she were the most academic, and the younger siblings fill in other niches: the wild one, the flirt.
* * *
But there are other ways to see these alternate identities: as challenges that can sharpen psychological skills. In a country where reinvention is considered a birthright, many people seem to treat old identities the way Houdini treated padlocked boxes: something to wriggle free from, before being dragged down. And psychological research suggests that this ability can be a sign of mental resilience, of taking control of your own story rather than being trapped by it.
Psychological studies suggest that seeing past labels from a distance not only reduces the sting of the memory but can also reinforce the sense that you have changed, have grown up and out of those old clothes.
A more obvious outlet to expand identity — and one that’s available to those who have not or cannot escape the family and community where they’re known and labeled — is the Internet. Researchers have found that many people who play life-simulation games, for example, set up the kind of families they would like to have had, even script alternate versions of their own role in the family or in a peer group.
* * *
Decades ago the psychologist Erik Erikson conceived of middle age as a stage of life defined by a tension between stagnation and generativity — a healthy sense of guiding and nourishing the next generation, of helping the community.
In a series of studies, the Northwestern psychologist Dan P. McAdams has found that adults in their 40s and 50s whose lives show this generous quality — who often volunteer, who have a sense of accomplishment — tell very similar stories about how they came to be who they are. Whether they grew up in rural poverty or with views of Central Park, they told their life stories as series of redemptive lessons. When they failed a grade, they found a wonderful tutor, and later made the honor roll; when fired from a good job, they were forced to start their own business.
This similarity in narrative constructions most likely reflects some agency, a willful reshaping and re-imagining of the past that informs the present. These are people who have taken control of the stories that form their identities. While most people can leave their family niches, schoolyard nicknames and high school reputations behind, they don’t ever entirely forget them.
* * *
And that’s one reason why I.Q., that most loaded label of them all, is such a sore point for so many. It’s too narrow a test, and too arbitrary — especially when differences are slight, as they were in the recent study — to mean the difference between Ms. Studious, and Mr. Screw-Up, to further cloud identities that are already difficult enough to build.
* * *
To read this article in its entirety, click here. For past Situationist posts about constructing a personal narrative, look at the June 18th post, “First Person or Third?” For more on family dynamics, look at the May 30th post, “Car Bonding.”