How The Labels We Take On Limit our Potential | 4 Easy Steps to Avoid Labeling Your Child
It’s no secret that we live in a society that labels everything- food, clothes, adults, children, pets. Our world is obsessed with labels because we find it difficult to comprehend things that don't fit into the one-size-fits-all boxes society has provided. We’re all guilty of jumping aboard the label train -myself included. It’s been happening since the beginning of time and if you allow yourself to take an honest and objective moment for reflection, you’ll see it, too.
Labeling a kid is typically done from the best of intentions. As parents, we genuinely believe we’re teaching them and encouraging positive behavior when using phrases such as, “Good boy!” or supporting their passions and skills with an encouraging, “You’re so athletic!” and motivating them with the praise (“You got this—you’re so smart!”).
Boy, were we wrong!
LABELS SET LIMITS
Labels limit a child’s potential by putting them in boxes -Categorizing their current behaviors into life-long identities. When we tell a child they’re athletic, artistic, crazy, good, big-boned, shy and so on, we unintentionally label their identity. Instantly leading them to conclude what they are and aren’t capable of doing. What initially begins as praise and positive encouragement quickly snowballs into creating a lifelong identity that’s difficult to live up to.
IT HAPPENS ALL OF THE TIME
Lately, my husband and I experienced how these innocently-placed labels began to impact our son and found ourselves having to undo their effects (more on that later). It’s no secret that toddlers tend to cling onto their parents when they’re uncomfortable with their surroundings or at crowded events. During these moments, we’ve all have had the tendency to lovingly comfort the child by telling them it's okay and they’re just “Shy” -including us.
When our son began clinging to our legs, others would try to comfort him by saying “That’s okay sweetie, you’re just shy”. Seems harmless, right? Though they had the best intentions and simply wanted to ease his obvious display of uncertainty, they unintentionally labeled him rather than his behavior.
Unfortunately, he immediately began to identify with the label bestowed upon him and began clinging to us more frequently. Particularly, when we’d drop him off at preschool. He began to say things like “Mama, don’t leave me. I’m too shy” or “Daddy, I don’t wanna go to school today, I’m shy”. We quickly noticed how this particular label began to define him rather than his behavior.
LABELS DISCOUNT THE POWER A CHILD HAS TO LEARN FROM THEIR SITUATION AT THAT GIVEN MOMENT.
A close friend of mine shared her story of how a childhood label truly limited her potential as an adult. One afternoon she came home from school clearly upset. Crying, she told her mother that the kids were calling her ‘fat’. Her mother instantly tried to comfort her by justifying her weight-gain by saying “Honey, you’re just built differently.”, “You’re just big-boned like me.” and “It runs in our family”. Though these comments were said from a place of love, it was also incredibly destructive because it negatively impacted her self-worth.
Those labels avoided the root cause of her experience and prevented her from learning from her situation. Her potential to have a healthy lifestyle as an adult was limited because she wasn’t taught how to properly care of her health. Rather, she learned to justify her unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise and poor self-care on those labels- Blaming it on genetics. Unfortunately, this lead her through a journey of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression as an adult.
I commonly see the negative long-term effects of labels with my clients. They come in due to a limiting belief preventing them from reaching a desired goal. Writing off their current set-backs to the phrases similar to “I can’t because I’m not a (insert label) person”. During our re-framing process, we dive into their subconscious to see where they picked up their limiting belief(s). Without fail -there it is- a label imprinted into their identity as a child. Luckily, with a little work, these labels can be easily re-framed from a limiting belief to a desired belief. However, the impact undetected labels have prior to their discovery can’t be undone.
WHY I'M SHARING
Since discovering these finding with my clients, it has truly opened my awareness of how my husband and I, as parents, needed to shift our parenting with our son. I am extremely grateful to my clients for bringing this to my attention as I’ve learned so much through each of their beautiful and courageous journeys. I hope by dropping this knowledge your way that all of us parents -and as a community- can shift how we communicate with our children in order to best teach them that their impact on this world is absolutely limitless.
EFFECTS OF POSITIVE & NEGATIVE LABLES
When an individual associates their identity with a label it makes their journey (unnecessarily) more difficult. Especially, when they have the desire to move on from it. Even the positive labels can have a negative impact. A child may encouraged to continue a sport by being told they’re athletic and find it hard living up to the expectations of an athletic person later in life. I've seen this with a client who was physically injured and unable to continue their athleticism. This client began to question who they were as a person saying, “If I can’t be athletic, who am I?” Or worse, a child can identify them self with the negative label and unknowingly limiting their potential in this world. I’ve seen clients struggle with a lifetime of depression and anxiety as a result of labels
So what can we do to avoid labeling our kiddos? It's surprisingly easy!
4 EASY STEPS TO AVOID LABELING YOUR CHILD
1. Reflect back on your childhood and how labeling might have affected you.
By increasing your awareness about the affect labels had during your upbringing, you’re able to recognize your patterns around labeling and provide some motivation for avoiding it. Did any of your parents, relatives, or significant adults (teachers, coaches) label you? What did they call you? Think of both negative and positive labels. EX: Smart, funny, introverted, reserved, difficult, quiet?
How did they affect your feelings about the person(s) who labeled you?
What about your relationships today?
2. Label the behavior rather than label the child.
Helping a child to identify their behavior is vital to understanding what they need or trying to express. When we can take a moment to identify the purpose behind their present action(s), we can then best support them through challenging times. This is done simply by asking the what behind the behavior. What were they trying to express through their actions?
Personally, when my son pitches a fit, we wait until he’s done with his tantrum before attempting to approach the situation. When he calms down, we’ll ask him if he’s ready to talk about it. Whatever his response, we honor it. Once he’s ready to chat, we ask him what he was feeling (happy, sad, angry, etc) and what he was trying to communicate. Once he answers, we then coach him on how to best express that emotion next time it happens.
3. Recognize that we are all human BEINGS.
How do we avoid labeling our child? The answer is so easy, it can be a hard one to follow at times. We can recognize that we are all human beings. At any given moment we are BEING; being shy, being loud, being aggressive, being athletic, being nice, being good, being bad – and so on.
We simply add the word BEING.
When my son latches on to my legs during an event with a lot of people and someone tells him “It’s okay, you’re just shy” I immediately correct them and say “Honey, you’re not shy. You’re just BEING shy right now. When you’re done BEING shy, you can go play and say hi to everyone.” By explaining it this way, I am able to help him gain an awareness to his action while simultaneously letting him know that it’ll eventually pass. I’m helping him understand what he is feeling during that present moment.
4. Ask those around you (spouse, relatives, friends) to “call you out” when you label.
My husband and I both discuss this topic as something that’s much easier said than done- Nonetheless, very doable. It’s easy at times to slip and tell our son “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so funny!”. We have to help each other by holding one another accountable when we slip up. We add “You’re BEING so smart right now” or a “You are BEING so funny today.” With a little practice, and the support of your loved ones to run interference during slip-ups, it can quickly become second nature.
Behaviors are merely an action a person is exhibiting during any present moment and present moments consistently change. A behavior that was exhibited in the past has no place labeling someone’s identity in the future. They don’t define who we are rather they describe how we are presently being - and as a human being, our behavior changes from one moment to the next. However, when we place a label on the child and not their behavior we risk teaching them otherwise.
Looking back, can you find labels that limited your growth? If you could go back and re-write that experience, what would tell your younger self today? I would tell myself that that it'll all be okay- to trust & believe in myself. Life is going to be so incredibly beautiful.