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Labels. What are they good for?

The human brain is a meaning-making organ. In a consistent attempt to make things make sense, the brain searches for similarities between events. It is prone to comparison and categorization. Being an organ that is made to keep you alive, it simply wants to know: what are the bad things and what should I be afraid of, versus what are the pleasurable things and who am I safe with. In fact, the brain is especially good at the negatives because, in the game of primitive survival, it is the negative experience you need to be mindful of. That is where the learning works. Your brain even likes to make meaning of itself. Hence, humans appear to be the only species who can think about thinking and know about knowing.

This ability to make meaning is a superpower for humanity. It has led us to discover and use knowledge in profoundly helpful ways. We are very good at using this superpower. It is therefore easy to forget this ability is just a tool. When wielded unconsciously, this tool takes on a life of its own. I am referring to those moments when we allow our minds to compare and categorize in a harmful manner. Specifically, where parenting is concerned, I see this in the use of labels. We’ve all heard these labels. Black sheep; Problem child; Golden child; Little Angel, etc, etc. If you were a recipient of one of these labels, you will understand what I’m about to say. If you are a user of these labels, listen up.

In the parenting arena, where we are working hard to value a child’s wholeness and deliver humans with the best chances for success, this superpower must be applied consciously. The assignment of labels, even in jest, can become the way a child’s identity is shaped. I have heard many parents do this with the best of intentions. In their attempts to make meaning of a child’s behavior, they assign a label that is supposed to clarify whether that behavior is acceptable or not. In the best of circumstances, this is a semantic shortcut that allows us to communicate quickly about a child. This may be the kind of name-calling that we think is easy to dismiss. By the way, we are mistaken about that. In the worst of circumstances, labels are debilitating to a child’s ability to see themselves clearly. This is what we find in those labels that cast a child in a permanent role in relation to other family members.

Labels are highly prescriptive. Once a label is affixed, it assumes a certain exclusivity regarding the elements in that container. Your meaning-making brain is now giving the child something to make meaning of. There is no way of telling what that child’s meaning will be. Take the label of “thief” for instance. There is nothing in the title thief that tells me how not to steal. Yet, we use such labels to shame and correct children as if it is the most sensible thing. Even when we think we are using positive labels, their prescriptive nature is just as limiting. Think about a “good child”, which is often what we label obedient children who do as they are told and can be trusted to follow directives. There is nothing in the label good child that tells me how to establish and maintain boundaries of safety and authenticity. In fact, the positive labels can be the more harmful because the more closely a child works to adhere to a positive label, the more vulnerable they must be to the restrictive expectations of that label.

My message here is that this semantic shortcut of labeling specific behaviors may not be as helpful as we think. That even when positive, any label a child takes seriously (and there’s no telling which one that will be) can have oppressive consequences for who they allow themselves to become or, worse still, what they tolerate from others. This is because while you may be labeling one behavior, the lack of descriptive language may sound to a child like an affirmation of who they are. This is not a message to take lightly.

I am not saying that parents are not supposed to call out bad behavior. I am insisting that, since the goal is to frame the behavior for the understanding of you and your child, you must apply energy and time to doing so in a complete and conscious manner. Once a child has behaved badly, you are parenting for the next opportunity. Calling out that behavior is about the next time, and not the past. Rather than declare the child a thief, you may choose to describe the behavior as stealing and let them know what you would rather they do next time. No matter how you choose to do this, your child should come away knowing what behavior you want to see next time and with a sense that they are able to perform this alternative behavior. What I want you to understand here is that a dismissive label does not do any of this. “You are a thief” does not tell me how not to steal. “She is the problem child” does not tell her how to become the solution. Say it often enough, and you may actually be taking away her options.

The way that we communicate the appropriate message may need to be different for each age group of children. What we need them to understand this time may be different from the last time. In the moment, a parent may only know what they do not want to see/hear. This is why I often recommend that parents take some time to do nothing in response to poor behavior, so that they can think through their message and nurse their own hurt feelings before engaging with a child about a sensitive issue.

Labels are useful alerts on a shelf item at the store. They are much less helpful on little humans. The good news is that the same brain that applies the label can think more dynamically about the child and provide more conscientious information. As parents, we are constantly striving to reflect the beautiful wholeness of our children to them. We always want them to be better and be more. We do this by recognizing all the ways they are already better and they are already more than one type of behavior (or several). It is my hope that as we learn to reframe these unhelpful labels, we open our hearts and those of our children to the possibility of more.

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