Research studies on labeling of children have either focused on the effects of formal labels on the lives of children with exceptionalities and mental health issues, or the effect of informal labeling by parents, peers and teachers on teenagers.
In all societies there are rules for governing the lives of the people. The enforcement of such rules leads to the categorization of certain behaviours as deviant when the rules are not followed. Researchers and theorists in the field of deviance have intimated that the label “deviant” is ascribed to a person as a result of the reaction to
another person’s behaviour, or to borrow the words of Simmons “deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.” This implies that a person is labeled only when another person perceives his/her behaviour as
deviant. Labels are ascribed formally through agents of social order or control and informally through the interactions between people who adhere to common rules.
Labeling kids usually starts out with the best of intentions. We may believe we’re encouraging positive behavior (“Good girl!”), fostering passion and skills (“You’re so athletic!”) and motivating with praise (“I know you can do this—you’re so smart!”).
But, just like the labels I grew up with made me believe I was bad at math, labels often do more damage than good.
1. Labeling kids makes it difficult to show them empathy
When faced with a challenging, strong-willed child, labeling him as a “troublemaker” automatically makes it difficult for you to show empathy and resolve the issue. Labeling creates distance between you and your child’s emotions.
You’re assigning him a personality trait instead of trying to relate to his struggle. Instead of engaging with empathy, placing that label causes you to move away from connecting with a child who’s feeling frustrated.
You’re more likely to view him as being a difficult child or a troublemaker. It becomes harder to realize your child is much more than simply his behavior, actions or temper tantrum.
2. Labeling makes kids feel terrible about themselves
Your kids hear what you say about them in conversations with other adults.
So when you create an excuse for your child, such as, “Oh, she’s shy—she won’t do it,” or “I’m sorry—she’s so rowdy all the time,” she’ll believe what you say to be true and she’ll believe her shyness or rowdiness is “bad.”
Never mind that being reserved or having plenty of energy aren’t bad qualities. It’s totally normal to feel quiet or hold back around strangers or new situations. Kids are also expected to expend energy and run around.
When your child hears you labeling him with words like “rowdy and rambunctious” or “timid and shy,” she feels self-conscious. What she really hears is that her perfectly natural feelings and actions make her “bad.”
She starts accepting that limiting belief about herself as true and she’ll continue to believe in that label as she grows up.
3. It’s too early to even label kids
We’ve all heard, “Oh, he’s going to be an engineer!” the minute our kids show a remote interest in how cars or machines work. Or, “Wow! She’s going to be a talkative one!” when they hear your baby happily babbling along.
Although friends and family mean well by their comments, these labels (even positive ones) assign kids a future at a very young age.
Who knows what our kids will go on to do?
4. Labels are inaccurate
Nearly every person (whether little or grown up) changes day to day! We’re all unique—we can’t be placed into neat categories or boxes. (How boring would it be if we were all neatly labeled and categorized?) Humans are capable of many complex emotions, reactions and personality facets—kids included.
5. Kids falsely believe talents are innate and unchangeable
As kids are developing and discovering their abilities and talents, they start to believe their talents are innate and unchangeable. Rather than understanding the value of practice and hard work, they can be easily discouraged and believe, I can’t do it, even if I try. It’s not in me.
When a child is labeled as athletic, artistic or bookish, he starts to believe that label is his identity.
6. Labeling kids makes it harder to correct behavior
Whether explicit or implied, labels are hard to shake off. So much so that, when disciplined, kids believe your negative feelings and words are directed at them as a person, rather than at their behavior.
If your child knows hitting is “wrong,” then it’s easier to correct, especially if you reassure him that you love him no matter what—even if he misbehaves. But if he’s labeled as a “hitter” or “aggressive,” then the hitting behavior becomes much harder to change.
Childhood is a time for discovery, but labels can assign interests and traits before kids even know what they enjoy. We’re all multifaceted with many different areas of interest, and kids have a natural propensity toward all kinds of subjects.
Labeling also stifles kids’ growth and limits their potential. After all, labels incorrectly convince them that their talents and abilities are innate rather than something that can change with effort.
This applies to behavior as well. Labeling might make kids believe that behavior and personality traits define who they are when in reality, they can be corrected, changed or adapted.
Kids (and adults) are complex and diverse—and isn’t it great that we can’t all fit into one box or another? None of us possess just one or two traits, talents or areas of expertise. We’re not bound to labels—so let’s do our best to stop labeling kids.