Facts about labels
Labels stick. You attach them to envelopes trusting that the label will remain on the outside until delivery is complete. Many times the label is difficult to peel off if one desires to reuse the envelope.
Labels speak. What is written on the label supplies important information about what is inside the package. Only the essential information is provided.
Labels cost. Depending on the size, shape and number purchased, the cost can vary. Seldom if ever is the cost reduced.
When utilized as described above, labels serve a positive purpose. When attached to humans, namely children, they still serve a purpose, but the sticking, speaking and costing can have a less than beneficial impact. Consider the following list of adjectives used as labels on children.
Reading through these may trigger memories of labels that were attached to you during your childhood years. You may also recall your own voice speaking or even yelling one of these labels in your home. These realizations can be humbling.
Effects of labels
Let’s explore the effects of labeling on a child’s emotional health and developing relationships.
Labels stick to children.
Children are “in process.” They are taking in information about themselves each day. They are not born with a positive self-image. Parents play a vital role in this department. Parents act as “psychological mirrors,” reflecting to children what you want to “stick.”
“It might help if we were to think of a child’s self-image as wet cement. Imagine that each of our responses to him leaves a mark and shapes his character.” This quote, taken from Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Faber and Mazlish, confirms the importance of our words. Over time, the cement “hardens” with our messages firmly embedded.
Labels speak to children.
Labels carry messages that often confine a child to a particular role or behavior. A child repeatedly called “bad” or “a troublemaker” will perceive herself as such and live down to these labels. A pathway begins to form in her belief system that tells her that this is who she is.
Even positive labels such as “Princess,” “King,” “Beautiful,” or “Baby” can lead a child to believe that they are entitled to be treated as such on a regular basis. When “Princess” is asked to clean her room, she may refuse, stating that it’s too much work and someone else should do it for her.
Labels cost children.
“Even in fun, labeling can be disabling,” according to Haim Ginott, psychologist. Labels can damage the parent-child relationship as over time, parents begin to see their child exclusively according to the label. It is as though a single word could describe a complex child completely.
“Courtney is always mean. It’s best to stay away from her.”
Parents can become restricted in their ability to perceive children’s full potential and confine their challenges for the children to grow.
Frequently, the words “always” or “never” accompany the labels. These add to the cost in that it is usually inaccurate. Courtney would need to be quite skilled and practiced in meanness to act “always mean.” Rather than labeling her, a parent might describe her response to someone as disrespectful.
Labels “live on.” They are difficult to remove.
Four-year-old Jason who is labeled “stupid” by his parents may carry that label into his relationships with his friends and be treated as such during their playtimes. Again, Ginott states, “often it is easier for a child to cling to his old self-defeating ways because at least they’re familiar to him.”
What if Jason’s parents pointed out the bright colors he imaginatively chose to portray a fall scene in a preschool art project. An opportunity could be opened for Jason to see his abilities in a positive way.
Instead of wearing a disabling label for the rest of the year, his parents could describe Jason’s behavior and choices, and build his character with a phase such as, “That’s what I call creative!” Before long, Jason along with his family and friends has a new “picture of himself!”
Freedom from labels
This form of communication that Jason’s parents used is called “descriptive praise.” Parents, teachers, and any adults who want to encourage a child to grow without labels can use it. Below are some other examples of how this might be used as a “label remover.”
To a “forgetful” child: “You remembered your lunch before you left home! That’s showing responsibility.”
To a “lazy” child: “You got half of your room straightened up. All those clothes are back in the drawers or hanging in the closet. That’s what I call persistence!”
Other tips to help child have a new self-image
Let a child overhear you say something positive about him. “I couldn’t have gotten all my work done if it wasn’t for Jonah. He spent an hour helping me re-organize the computer area. He sure was helpful.”
Model the behavior you’d like to see. Dad responds in a calm voice when Joey yells at his sister, “You need to explain to your sister what is bothering you. Let’s see if I can help you find the words.”
Be a storehouse for your child’s special moments. “Glen, I remember last year when you thought you’d never hit a pitch and were ready to quit the team. The next game, you got to second base against one of the opposing team’s best pitchers.”
When the old label reappears, state your feelings or expectations. “I expect you to clean up after yourself. Everyone in this family is expected to pitch in.”
Labels can be difficult to remove. But it is never too late to change, to become aware of the impact of labels, to realize a negative perception you may have of your child, and to work to “re-frame” that image.
Make sure the words you use are ones that you are pleased to stick on and speak to your children. And finally, count the cost of the messages your children receive so that as they mature, the words they carry with them will be ones that provide encouragement and support for the challenges that lie ahead.
MSW, Certified Parenting Educator
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