Is Labeling Kids a Mistake?

It’s really, really easy to label kids. “She’s so artistic” or “He’s such a troublemaker” are phrases that fall from our lips without a second thought. The sad thing is, we come to expect from kids exactly what we’ve already decided they are, and they usually fall in line with our expectations.

Some people see only negative labels as being bad. They would never call their child “fat” or “stupid”, but in fact even supposedly positive labels can have a down side too. A child labeled “gifted” might begin to feel like they can’t endure the pressure associated with being gifted, or that if they don’t get straight A’s and high test scores, they’ve failed.

A recent article on this topic in Chicago Parent magazine says this:

“A child strives to match the labels she is given, whatever that label is…a labeled child often wonders if he would be as loved if he were not so handsome (or funny or well-behaved). Assigning a label to a child frequently limits that child’s ability to explore other aspects of himself because he worries he will lose others’ admiration or love if he no longer fits the label.”

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Labels don’t always arise externally. Children often come up with labels for themselves, based on their behavior and the comments of others. They may think of themselves as klutzy when they’re picked last for a basketball team, or as “bad at math” after getting a low grade on a test.little girl

Just as with labels bestowed by others, self-labels can stick with you forever. They can also become self-fulfilling prophecies when you begin to actively seek behaviors that fit the label’s definition. A normal-sized child who thinks of herself as fat may begin to overeat in order to prove to herself that she really is fat.

Growing up, I was the “smart” one, and my sister was the “pretty” one. Truth is, she’s also smart and I’m pretty (at least my husband thinks so), but it seemed to be easier for everyone to pigeonhole us that way. Why? I can’t say, exactly. Maybe my parents felt like it was too much for both of us to be smart and pretty, and decided to pick the one that fit our behavior best: she was a cheerleader and I read all the time.

Whatever the case, the labels have stuck. I remember being surprised when my sister did really well in college, even though I know very well just how intelligent she is. It just didn’t fit my preconceived notion of what her strengths are.

The Dangers of Labeling

When we label children, we reduce them to a word or two. There’s no way that these simple words could even begin to sum up the totality of who children are and what they’re capable of. Labels will fall short every time. Here’s what labels do:

1. Labels often highlight the negative characteristics of a child and not the positive ones. The focus becomes the one issue the child struggles with and not the myriad of things the child can do successfully. Why is this important? Labels determine goals. Our goal becomes “fixing” the problem rather than enjoying the child’s uniqueness.

2. Labels don’t give kids the room to grow and change. A child who’s been labeled “the class clown” or “the athlete” often goes straight into adulthood wearing that same label, even if they’ve long since shed the behaviors that led to the labeling.

3. Labeling often becomes our focus, rather than an understanding of the problem. If a child does have some special needs, we can be so quick to label him or her that we miss out on other important information that could be helpful.

4. Labels can be based on faulty information. One obvious example is tests (standardized, IQ, etc.) A child may do well (or poorly) on a test and then be labeled by the teachers as bright or not bright. The test, however, doesn’t take into account things like motivation, determination, artistic ability, a child’s interests, and dozens of other factors that can influence a child’s individual achievement.

Can We Label Well?

Many times, parents who are dealing with certain issues in their children – perhaps a learning disorder or a physical affliction – feel a rush of relief when their child’s condition is finally identified. Knowing the name of the problem can lead to the right treatment.

Most schools and insurance companies require a diagnosis before beginning therapy or other special services; some kind of label is a necessity in these cases. The key is to not let the label be the sum total of the child’s unique characteristics.

Can we ever talk about a child’s abilities or potential without the damaging side effects of labeling? I think we can, but we have to be very, very careful about how we do it. Here are a few guidelines:

1. Never discuss a child in front of that child. The equally important corollary to this is, never discuss a child in front of other children or other parents. Teachers! Parents! We must be so careful about this. It’s too easy to get into a conversation with another adult and not realize that the other children in the room are listening. They hear everything, and understand a lot more than we realize.

2. Comment on the behavior, not the child. This is a crucial difference. “Brandon, you put a lot of hard work into your art project” is so much better than, “Brandon, you are such a great artist!” Similarly, “I think you need to take another look at that math problem” or even “Do you need some extra help with math?” is completely different than, “Well, it looks like you’re not very good at math!”

3. Use labels when necessary for educational or medical intervention, but not as a way to define the child in everyday life. Respect the child’s privacy, and only tell people as needed. Let the child (especially an older one) take the lead on how and when to let people know about their issues.

4. Never use labeling as a motivational or behavioral tool. Children are not motivated to exercise by hearing that they are fat. They are not motivated to work harder in school when they’re told they’re stupid.

I’m very sorry to say that I hear parents make these kinds of comments frequently, thinking that they’re going to motivate the child to do the opposite. Tragically, the child almost always goes the other direction – and pursues the negative behavior rather than abandoning it.

5. Encourage children to explore all sorts of activities. No child should ever be limited in his or her opportunities just because it doesn’t fit our ideas of what their strengths or weaknesses are.

The Power of Labels

Most of us have probably heard of the famous study from years ago, where teachers were given a class of children and told that half of them were gifted and half were below average (even though the children were all of about the same ability). Indeed, at the end of the school year, the “gifted” children had better grades and test scores than the “below average” children.

The conclusion? Children meet the expectations of the adults around them. If they’re expected to do well, they do. If they’re not expected to do well, they don’t. Wow! Labels are powerful stuff. Let’s be sure to use them sparingly and carefully.