Labeling a child draws upon our core beliefs about who we are, what shapes us, and how we, in turn, shape the world around us. We will explore how we may unwittingly label our children, how this affects them, and ways to avoid labeling.
Inevitably, each of us has encountered some sort of labeling in our own lives. Maybe we were compared to a sibling, or overheard our caregivers discussing us. It doesn’t matter whether the tone was positive or negative — the words we heard began to shape the way we viewed ourselves and, in turn, how we presented ourselves in different environments.
A lot of times, parents will label their children because they feel uncomfortable about their behavior. It may seem innocent enough to say to another adult that our child is “shy” or “wild,” but we are subconsciously creating a label that the child will identify with and continue to carry out. Labels interfere with the child’s opportunity to grow organically.
Even positive labels can be a hindrance as each child grows. A child labeled “smart” may feel pressure to live up to a high standard of intelligence, even while many of us agree that such “standards” are impossible to set, and most measurements, such as standardized tests, are inadequate. Yet such pressure can keep children from challenging themselves in areas outside their comfort zone.
Labeling often happens in ways that seem inconsequential or straightforward on the surface. For instance, if a child hears, “she doesn’t like bananas,” she’s not likely to try another banana anytime soon. Think about it; we’ve all known adults who suddenly discover they absolutely love a specific type of food; they were sure they’ve disliked since childhood. Similarly, when you say, “my child throws his food when he’s done eating,” and hears you, you have just unknowingly reinforced that behavior.
Labels can be avoided
For example, If your child is not social when introduced to some people at a party. And you absolutely feel the need to explain this behavior, try saying something like “my child is feeling shy today,” or, better yet, simply let her be because chances are she will grow out of it. By adding the word “feeling,” you make a distinction between feelings, which change, and identity, which is fixed. It may seem simple, but it can make a massive difference over time. We each have our own unique personalities, and sometimes we just like being the “quiet one”! Children are like little adults, we should respect them as the tiny human that they are while guiding and supporting them to grow with healthy self-esteem.
Lastly, you must stop talking about your child in front of your child and acting like they are not there. We need to be aware of what we discuss and what they may overhear. Your child is listening even though he may not show signs of understanding. Think of it this way: When we take a photograph with a film, we have to wait to see how that photo develops. This is similar to a developing child. At this point in time, we can imagine the child taking as many pictures as possible, and only with time will we see the full picture of who they are.
“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.” —Maria Montessori