The Problem with Labeling Children

Jan 30, 2008

We live in a society that labels everything. We have labels on our clothes, our cheeseburgers, our meat and produce, and the list goes on. We like the convenience of neatly packaged words so we can sum up the person, place or thing and know what to expect. However, especially with children, even harmless labels can play a lasting role in self-esteem, behavior and long-term personality.

Children develop and define their sense of self by processing what others tell them about who they are, what they are good at, how they behave and so on. The communication principle of the “Looking-Glass Self” from Charles Cooley can be applied. Cooley believes that by reflecting back to us who we are and how we come across, other people function as mirrors for us.

Imagine the implication then, for children, when we ‘reflect’ on who they are. Every time a teacher says he or she is a “good student” or a coach says “average player”, that helps define they way the child views him or herself.

It would be easy to assume that this mainly applies to official labels, such as ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Any of you with children who have been officially diagnosed with an emotional, behavioral or mental disorder certainly have learned about the power of labeling. Typically, once a child has been evaluated and diagnosed, that label will define and follow them for years to come.

However, parents often refer to children with less severe labels that are just as significant. If you notice one child pursues musical interests, he becomes “the musician”. Another loves sports, and she becomes “the athlete”. Another excels in school and is the “brainiac”. None of those labels has negative connotations, but can pigeon-hole children into pre-defined boxes.

What if the “brainiac” really wants to try soccer? Unfortunately, there is already an “athlete” in the family, which creates a fight or flight response. She can either fight to redefine her place as a smart child who also plays soccer, or can revert back to the place where she has already been.

Labels have much more of an impact that we realize, and we need to be mindful of how we talk about our children. If you must define certain things about them to yourself or others, try to choose positive versions of the same trait, i.e. “spirited” rather than “hyper”, “cautious” instead of “timid”.

Being mindful of the descriptions we give off to children can make a difference in the self-esteem and self-concept that they develop. The self-fulfilling prophecy can go both ways- a child told he is lazy will likely be so, but the opposite is also true that a child told they are helpful will help. Keeping the focus on the child’s positive attributes, while avoiding labels, can encourage children to become healthy and happy.

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