"Oh, she's hopeless in math. 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 math, Rohini seemed convinced that she just couldn't handle the subject.
Rohini's case is an example of how labeling 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 labeling can negatively affect 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 labeled with and begins to develop it. For example, if parents frequently label a child a liar, the child forms a belief that he is a liar. Thus, he continues to play out the label of being a 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 labeling is an attempt to change an unwanted behavior by shunning that trait, it rarely works that way. For example, a child labeled lazy 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 exploring developing his other abilities and interests. Similarly, a child who is labeled 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 of 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 of 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 managed by specialists. So, it is unfair to give a child a label that could limit her from achieving her full potential.
How can you stop labeling your child?
Try and understand your child's behaviors instead of negatively tagging them - Children display all kinds of behaviors based on what they think and feel in the moment. Your responses to these behaviors also vary at the moment. When you are hassled you feel less in control and unable to manage your child's behavior, so you tend to label your child more out of anger and frustration. Instead, you could pause awhile, step back to regain calm before you address your child's behavior. This intervening time helps you calm yourself and respond with empathy and stops you from saying hurtful things to your child. Children misbehave when they don't know how else to cope with difficult emotions. When you regulate your emotions (it's natural to be upset and angry) you not only demonstrate the skill to your child but you also approach your child with a curiosity to understand what is troubling him and then support him with empathy and understanding. Just remember that certain misbehavior does not define your child's entire personality.
Avoid thinking and speaking in ways that can possibly label 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 criticizing and labelling him a good-for-nothing.
As parents, we owe it to our children to not label them in any way, as labels 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 strengths and abilities.
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