Original post by Hayley Goldberg, LMFT of Heart of Connecting
How we label and describe our children makes a difference in how our children ultimately come to think about themselves. Labels have much more of an impact than we realize because our words carry a lot of weight. As children grow and develop labels become a self-fulfilling prophecy as children internalize what we say, own the label, and repeat the message as their life long inner self-talk. As labels come to define how children view and think about themselves they also directly impact children’s developing self-confidence and self-esteem.
It goes without saying that negative labels have a negative impact on children’s personal development. But labels not only define how children view and think about themselves they also strongly influence our parenting behavior. Negative labels color and cloud how we see our children. The negative language, name calling, or sarcasm that you may use to describe your child or their behavior directs the way we parent and influences us toward more negative actions toward our children. When we label children as being “a Brat”, “Nasty”, “Lazy” or “Manipulative”, these negative thoughts and labels direct us away from positive and mindful parenting and push us toward punishment. Punishment will never lead us to positive solutions and will continue to affect a child’s less-than-desirable behavior. Continued use of punishment over time will disconnect you from your child as it begins to shift the emotional relationship you have with your child. Negative labels influence our thoughts and feelings and absolutely make it more difficult for us to respond appropriately and effectively to our children and their misbehavior. Negative labels also push us to see our children’s behavior as willful and intentional when in fact the misbehavior may be due to circumstances or lagging skills. This is especially true for toddlers and preschoolers who are still learning and need to be taught appropriate behavior expectations.
Problems also arise when we engage in positive labeling of children. While positive labels have the advantage of moving us away from harsh parenting and allow us to be more emotionally available to our children, problems can still arise. When we label children as “the Academic”, “the Athlete”, “the Budding Artist”, or “the Social Butterfly”, while none of these labels have negative connotations they pigeon-hole children into predefined boxes that are limiting. Kids may feel that they are not allowed to, or capable of, altering or expanding the identities that have been assigned to them. Positive labels also create pressure for children to maintain their given status and they feel the need to always measure up to their label or identity so as not to disappoint.
We need to be mindful how we talk about children. As adults, we like the convenience of neatly packaged words that can sum up our children. Labels help us know what we are dealing with and are an easy way to let others know what they can expect from a child. For best parenting practice we should never slap descriptive tags on children. We should never label our kids as anything. Even harmless labels can play a lasting role in parenting, self-esteem, behavior and long-term personality. We need to eliminate labels from our parenting vocabulary. We need to create a positive internal narrative when we think about our children. We need to encourage children’s health and happiness and separate our children from their behaviors because behavior is much easier to change than labels which become embedded and eventually seen as truth.