The Power of Labels

He’s so bad. She’s shy. He’s going to be a doctor. She’s a troublemaker. He’s chubby. She’s an artist. Have you ever heard someone say something like this? Have you ever said anything like this? Labels (positive and negative) are powerful and can follow a child and impact how others see them and how they perceive themselves.

Children are not born knowing what to think about themselves. It is the adults in their lives that reflect back the image of the child.

When a child repeatedly hears negative messages about themselves they begin to internalize those labels and live up to them. They will actually begin to see themselves as troublemakers or as a bad kid. The same problem arises with what can be seen as complements such as labeling a child as beautiful or a prince. These labels can make children feel entitled to special treatment.

“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.” Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Faber and Mazlish. As time passes the cement hardens and those labels are imprinted on the child.

When parents and teachers introduce their children/students to me via email or in person they almost always include broad labels. I believe that adults intentions are to give me valuable information about the child but instead their choice of words assigns a trait to the child. It is the difference between saying, “She is a shy child” and saying “Right now, when she meets someone new she takes a few minutes before talking to them.”

When thinking about labels and doing a little reading I ran across an article called 6 Reasons to Stop Labeling Kids. The author tells us that labels are limiting. “They put us in boxes and instantly lead us to conclude what we can and can’t do. What initially begins as praise and positive encouragement quickly snowballs into permanent labels that are difficult to shake off.”

Here is a quick summary of her 6 points.

Labeling kids makes it difficult to show them empathy.

You are assigning a personality trait instead of trying to relate to his struggle. You begin to believe the label which is a simplistic characterization of a complex human being. Remember feelings and behaviors are temporary, traits can been seen as permanent.

Labeling makes kids feel terrible about themselves.

When children hear you label them to others they feel self-conscious. The child starts accepting that narrow idea about themselves as true and that label will impact what they believe about themselves as adults.

It’s too early to even label kids.

Assigning a skill or future profession to a baby limits them from exploring their natural abilities and interests.

Labels are inaccurate.

Humans are complex and capable of a variety of emotions, reactions, and personality facets. Children grow and change over time. A child can be chatty one day and reserved the next.

Kids falsely believe talents are innate and unchangeable.

Children easily fall into the false believe that even if they practice and work hard, they start to believe their skills are fixed and unchangeable. If a child is labeled athletic for instance, they start to believe that is their identity and shy away from trying things that do not fall into that category.

Labeling kids makes it harder to change the behavior.

When you correct a behavior (something the child did) your discipline is directed at the behavior you want to change instead of the person. You can still love/care for the child and address the behavior. If you are labeled as ‘aggressive’ it is harder for the child to change their behavior. The child accepts that they are their label ‘aggressive’ so why try to change.

I urge you to think about the language you use to describe children. Choose words that offer an objective description of the child at that time, not a label that is fixed. It is never our intention to limit how a person sees themselves however labels are powerful and can follow us all of our lives.