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Why We Label Kids—And The Pros And Cons Of Doing It

Labeling kids isn't always a negative thing—but what are the hidden dangers?

It's easy to label people as "the shy one," "the funny one" or "the really smart one." But using this type of labeling, especially on young kids, can be limiting and have a negative affect on attitudes and social skils. The Mother Company talks with pediatric psychologist Lynne Kenney, PsyD, to explore how identifing toddlers by social labels can affect their behavior.

Why do we tend to label kids?

We create labels to make sense out of complex pieces of data. Once we have a label, we feel empowered to take action. This especially helps when we have conflicted feelings about things – like the traits and behaviors of people, in this case, children.

How can labeling kids be useful?

A lot of time teachers and/or parents label their kids because they feel uncomfortable about the child’s behaviors and or attitudes. It gives them something specific to explain the behavior. “Oh, that’s my son’s sensory issue again.” Making meaning of discomfort is soothing. Consensual reality, or seeing things the same way that others do, is comforting as well. For example, titles like, “leader” or “observer,” when given by the teacher at a conference, gives parents confirmation to what they, as parents, are feeling. Their perceptions are affirmed. It gives parents a perceived sense of control, and perhaps a reason to act on the quality — especially if it’s a quality or behavior that could use some work.

For parents, in the short run, it’s okay to label a bit to calm yourself, but in the long run, we want our kids to be able to move on to the future as fully realized as they possibly can be.

Medically speaking, labels can be useful to qualify people for medical services and educational programs.

If we’re going to label children for the purposes of communication with another adult in order to get the child’s needs met, labeling can be helpful.

But, parents must be careful. Children will become who you say they will become or who you say they are. So, give them the opportunity to be more and different than what you perceive them to be.

What are some damaging consequences caused by labeling kids — both short and long-term?

Sometimes parents and educators, “name and blame.” That is, they label something to make it someone else’s fault or responsibility.

If we label a kid, for example, “problem child,” or “shy” or “willful” in a derogatory way or as an excuse for behavior, then that’s damaging. Some parents label their kids to distance themselves, washing themselves of responsibility. For example, when an adult says hello to a child, and the child doesn’t say hello back, the parent might say, “oh he’s really shy.” This happens because the parent is experiencing social devaluation, and labels their child to manage their adult to adult relationships. This has more to do with the parent’s needs, instead of the child’s. If we’re focusing on the needs of the child, the parent might get down on the child’s level, and ask, “Would you like to say hello to Sarah?” or “Can you wave your hand?”

We all aim to raise socialized children, but we don’t need to feel bad or apologize for our child’s behavior if they aren’t conforming perfectly. Young children are on a learning curve. Narrowing our view of acceptable behavior for children is not beneficial. If you know your child may behave shyly or aggressively or what have you, then try to approach social situations differently, by preparing in advance for the expected behavior, and then react accordingly. Move away from labeling your child and focus on their skill set, and how to strengthen it.

Perceiving our children more broadly, and using language that doesn’t put them in the box (shy, gifted, aggressive, willful) benefits the child, because it’s an attitude that inherently believes in the child’s ability to grow and change.

Also, some qualities, even ones that seem socially awkward, tend to be useful for some situations or for some reasons. Our goal as parents is to guide our children towards the qualities that are appropriate for the situation, and give our kids time to grow into them.

What if kids are labeled a positive quality? Might that result in some kind of damage for the child?

“Smart,” or “kind,” or “friendly” – qualities we prize socially – are fine when taking in the intention of the label. If the intention is to give descriptive praise to the child, it’s useful to label the behavior, because it reinforces the behavior supported by our society.

But kids also need to know they are allowed to be more than these qualities as well. Like they can feel sad, or quiet or angry – qualities that might be perceived as less socially acceptable, especially if the child is being praised for all the “good” stuff. Repetitive labeling is not meaningful. The message we send our kids should be broad. Also, it’s helpful to point-out other kids that exhibit similar positive qualities, so the child feels a part of something larger then themselves.

We want our kids to have a colorful social palette – that includes all sorts of ways of behaving and feeling.

How can parents repair damage done by labels kids have absorbed about themselves?

Ask your child: what are other qualities you have? This way they don’t over-identify with one label.

Also, parents can use descriptive praise often, instead of doling out definitions of who they think their kids are. Descriptive praise describes the action of the child in a specific and positive way: “That was very generous when you shared your crackers with your friend,” or “You got dressed all by yourself, how self-reliant!” or “That was very resourceful when you searched for your book and found it.”

Expert: Lynne Kenney, PsyD, is a mother of two, a practicing pediatric psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the author of The Family Coach Method. Her new book with Wendy Young, Bloom: Helping children blossom, is revolutionizing classrooms and homes worldwide.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of the “ Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with children’s books, apps, music, handmade dolls, and more.

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