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