Labeling our Kids

Labeling our children is something we all do.  We may begin by swearing we won't, we may have read infinite numbers of articles and books on the negative effects of putting labels on children, but long and behold, the moment we hold our child in our arms for the first time, up pops a label: "He's an easy baby." As our children grow, it continues: "Sara's the musician in the family." And the labels we apply aren't necessarily positive, either: "My son is so obsessive," "My daughter is such a slob." Positive and negative labels are so prevalent in parenting that they bear closer examination: Are all labels bad? If not, why not, and if so, what should we do differently?

Most labels - the positive and the negative - do have potentially negative results. The reason is that labels, by their very nature, are limiting. They circumscribe a tight boundary around a child, and inform her about characteristics that she "should" have (ones which fit within the label), and ones she "shouldn't" have (those which are not usually associated with that label.) As an example, let's say that your friend tells you that her son is an artist. Characteristics may immediately come to mind; generalities that allow us to complete the sentence: "Artists are...(temperamental, introverts, creative, sensitive, etc.)" How we fill in the blank often depends upon the level of personal knowledge we have about this category of persons. We may also be able to complete a sentence about what artists are not: "Artists aren't... (athletic, mathematical, outgoing, insensitive, etc.)" The characteristics that are included or excluded from any given label can therefore limit our children's potential in life, which is why, in general, labeling our children is something to be avoided.

So how do we work with labels we may have already given? And how can we describe our child to another person if we don't use labels?

The answer lies in "reframing" - which means using different word choices that are broader and more positive as descriptions, rather than taking the "one word shortcut" a label provides. Let's look at two examples:

One mom's language about her son was sprinkled with "he obsesses about..." and "he's very obsessive...". Interestingly, in hearing her describe him, the word "obsessive" would never have occurred to me. I did hear that this was a child with firm convictions, a high level of intelligence, and a moral sensibility that was at a more mature level than that of his peers. This often caused him to be persistent in attempting to win arguments, particularly over issues of "right" and "wrong." In other words, he would "obsess" about the issue until it resolved itself in some way.

When we look at our child in broader terms it allows us to "reframe" a potentially negative label as a set of more positive characteristics. For this mom, it meant seeing the numerous facets of her child's personality that made up a particular behavior, rather than limiting him as an "obsessive person."

Reframing can be done with "positive" labels as well. For example, one father was particularly proud of his daughter's athletic abilities, especially in the area of soccer. He constantly boasted that his daughter was "a star soccer player." One day, after a string of winning games, her team lost. She was devastated. While her team members seemed to take it in stride, she was lethargic for days. Finally, after much probing on Dad's part, he discovered that because she had owned the label he'd given her of "star" she not only blamed herself for the outcome of the game, but also had her identity shaken - losing the game made her, in her mind, a "fallen star." Fortunately, Dad realized his mistake at this point and began to help his daughter redefine herself: not as a "star", but as a real human being. The deep level of commitment, the discipline, the passion, and the team work that she exhibited - in many areas, not just soccer -- began to be recognized, and a broader sense of self was the result.

In learning about the negative aspects of labels, and how to correct the ones our children have been given, it's only fair to look at a couple of circumstances in which a label may actually have a positive effect. For some children, and in certain situations, labels can positively define, rather than limit kids. Here are two types of labels that can be positive, along with the reason(s) why:

Diagnostic labels. When a child is challenging or challenged in some way, parents often shy away from an evaluation process by a professional because they're concerned that the diagnostician will "label" their child (ADD, Dyslexic, Learning Disabled, etc.) in a way that will limit them. However, the evaluation process has its benefits, often providing a clear snapshot of a child that allows her parents and teachers to understand her better. With a clearer understanding of a child's strengths and weaknesses comes the ability to help her reach her full potential. Rather than limiting, diagnostic labels can be freeing.

Positive labels that the child himself applies. While the labels that children give themselves can certainly limit them in the same way that a parental label can, other times positive self-applied labels can be helpful. For example, if a child is going through a tough time in school, or is in the middle and high school years when identity crisis are common, a label such as "I am an artist" can both comfort and ground a child. This is particularly true if a child has achieved a level of mastery in a particular area, whether it's sports, art, music, or any other field. Being able to claim an identity of this sort can get a child through the difficult periods of growing up.

Remember that your children are multi-faceted people. Discard the labels, shatter the boundaries, and watch them blossom into their full potential as human beings.