When Words Hurt: Why Parents Should Avoid Labeling Their Kids

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  So NOT true, right?  I’m sure we can all recall the mean names applied to us when we were kids and they hurt a lot.  Most parents know they should not call their child names and they avoid it, but many of us label our children without realizing it.  What’s labeling and how does it harm children?  I talked about this topic yesterday with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life.

Harsh Labeling Affects Our Child’s Self-Esteem

stupid labelA child’s self-perception is shaped by her early interactions in close relationships.  If parents use harsh or negative labels to describe their child (“lazy,” “mean,” “airhead”), the child’s vision of herself may be affected.  Over time, she may come to believe that those labels define who she is. Kids have to deal with enough name calling from their peers, so parents shouldn’t add to their woes.

Even the most loving parent can find herself using a negative label in the heat of the moment.  If this happens, apologies and amends are absolutely necessary:  we may know we didn’t really mean anything by our words, but our child’s doesn’t know. Our child’s self-esteem is impacted by what she believes we think about her, not by what we actually believe.  We should remind our child of the many times she has acted exactly opposite the label we used to describe her.  “Obviously you are not lazy.  Yesterday you put away all those crayons for your little sister without being asked.  You showed great maturity and industry!”

I think it’s important to remember that using labels to describe our child to other adults — family members, teachers, other parents — can influence that adult’s expectations about our child.  If we tell a teacher that our child is lazy or sloppy at home, the teacher will expect to see it in the classroom. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Labeling Leads to Division and Distance

When parents use labels  with older children, the child will naturally tend to shut down, put up a wall, or even call the parent a name back.  At this point, healthy communication is over.  One critical mistake parents make when dealing with their child’s poor choices is to focus on their child’s personhood rather than the problem behavior. “Mr. Sourpuss is in the house.” “You are lazy.”  I find myself doing this with my kids when I’m frustrated and I’m dealing with them as a group.  “Why are you guys such slobs?”  At this point, our children are only thinking about the negative way we described them or when we’ll stop talking so they can get away from us!

It’s far more effective to focus on the problem behavior, our expectations about the behavior, and how our child can meet those expectations.  I try to understand why my children did what they did, too, even if it makes no sense to me.   So, if my children have made a mess, instead of calling them slobs, I can explain that they’ve taken out all the puzzles before putting away the Lego and the costumes.  I can explain that in general I expect one activity to be cleared away before a new activity is started.  I can help them meet that expectation by helping them focus on one part of the clean up at a time. “Put all the Lego in these two boxes first, then we’ll put away the costumes.”  This trains them in handling an overwhelming job by breaking it down into stages.  I can also try to see things from my child’s perspective: “If you want to do the puzzles in your costume that’s fine. That sounds like fun!”

Labeling Limits Our Children

Lisa pointed out during our segment that there’s a staircase of name calling with verbal abuse on the top steps and more innocuous labeling on the bottom steps.  I think I am often on the lower stairs of name calling without realizing it.  With one of my children in particular, I’ve noticed recently that I label her in ways that may limit her self-perception.  Her room is very messy – cluttered and full of things she can’t seem to part with — so I call her a clutter bug or a pack rat. But, when I think about it, this really isn’t true.  The truth is, I’ve seen this child organize her craft supplies and our shoe closet like a pro.  So really she can be organized. She just lacks motivation in keeping her room organized or perhaps she needs help in how to tackle the problem. As described above, instead of labeling her, I know it would be more helpful to talk about the problem and how we can solve it together.

I’m concerned that even the positive labels I use with this same child may be limiting.  She is very creative and artistic, and I see that her gifts in this area are a clue to God’s plan for her and I want to encourage her artistic talent.  But sometimes my vision of her is limited to the arts, and at these times I can find myself on the lower steps of the labeling staircase.  I’m constantly describing her as “my artist” or “the creative one.”  While it’s important to give our children positive feedback on their talents, I think the problem is with my perceptions — they seem too narrow and, well, not very creative!  If I only see my daughter as artistic and creative, I may not provide opportunities for her to explore other talents she has or to use her artistic gifts in other areas.  If my vision of her is so limited, then her vision of herself may become limited.  She may avoid the sciences or math because she doesn’t envision herself as a scientist or mathematician.  But, of course, the greatest scientists and mathematicians are very creative.

Lately I’ve been looking for opportunities to point out my daughter’s abilities in non-artistic areas.  I’ve even created these opportunities for her without letting her know about it. For example, I asked my husband to invite her to help him on a household repair. I want her to see herself as talented and capable in many areas.

If you’d like to listen to my segment on More2Life, here’s the audio.  I come in about 20 minutes into the show.  But the entire show is great. Dr. Popcak lets listeners in on signs that they are being verbally abused or perhaps abusing somebody else without realizing it.


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