How Labelling Can Disable Your Child

Do you often call your child lazy? Or do you tell him he’s a born cricketer? Does her teacher say she’s a troublemaker? Labelling is easy, but how does it affect a child. Read on to know more.

By Susan Philip

How Labelling Can Disable Your Child

“Oh, she’s hopeless in maths. I’d be happy if she just manages to pass in the subject.” said Rohini’s mother.

For long, Rohini had been hearing her mother say the same thing. So, while she performed well in other subjects, when it came to maths, Rohini seemed convinced that she just couldn’t handle the subject.

Rohini’s case is an example of how labelling can adversely affect a child. Yet, it is a habit that parents just can’t seem to give up. Irrespective of whether labels are positive or negative, they are detrimental to a child’s emotional health. Let’s look at some of the ways labelling negatively affects a child.

  • Labels are defining: Labels contribute to a child’s sense of identity. Just as a child learns to associate himself with his name, he learns to identify with the trait(s) he’s labelled with and develop it. For example, if parents label a child who lies occasionally as a liar, there is a danger that the child may turn into a compulsive liar.
  • Labels are sticky: When children acquire labels from trusted adults – parents, grandparents or teachers – they begin to think of those tags as an irrevocable or unchangeable part of their personality. So, though the intention behind labelling is usually to provoke the child to change by shunning that trait, it rarely works that way. For example, when labelled lazy, a child will most probably accept that laziness is an immutable part of her personality, and thus, never push herself.
  • Labels are limiting: Even positive labels have a downside. For example, parents who feel proud of their child’s musical skills may label him as the next Justin Bieber. Repeating that often can make the child box himself into the ‘musician’ slot. So, what’s the downside of this? The child could have an aptitude for chemistry, or public speaking or basketball, but the label of ‘musician’ may prevent him from developing his other talents. Similarly, a child who is labelled a geek may not find the confidence to play football even if his dreams are all about shooting that impossible, match-winning goal.
  • Labels influence others: If labels limit a child’s expectation from herself, they also influence how others view her and what they expect from her. Through his study, Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, showed that it is possible to influence teachers’ expectations from their students. Prof Rosenthal gave children in a San Francisco school a standard ability test. He then picked several students at random and told their teachers that these children were those whose IQs were about to blossom. He followed the progress of these students over 2 years. It was found that the teachers paid more attention to these students. And, by the end of the year, the IQ levels of these students were found to have indeed increased.
  • Labels are misleading: Sometimes parents tend to use words without knowing their true significance. Quite often, parents describe their physically active and energetic child as ‘hyperactive’, which, in fact, is a disorder that can only be diagnosed and treated by an expert. So, it is unfair to give a child a label he does not deserve.

How to stop the labelling your child

Children change as they grow up. And, during this growing and changing phase, there will be times when children will behave in a disobedient, loud, cheeky or domineering way. So, try to consciously prevent yourself from highlighting any of these phases as the defining quality of your child. If your child is good at something, praise his efforts but refrain from tagging him. For example, if he draws well and comes up with a good painting, admire what he has done, but don’t rush to tag him as an ‘artist’. Similarly, if he does something that disappoints you, try to show him the right way instead of criticising and labelling him a good-for-nothing.

As parents, we owe it to our children to not label them in any way, as labels, both positive and negative, do more harm than good. Therefore, as parents, let’s get over our fixation with labelling our children and give them a chance to develop their character and abilities.


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