I met a three-year-old girl with her mom at the park a few days ago. She was hesitant to converse and spent a large amount of time hiding behind her mom, who was visibly uncomfortable and insisting that the child make conversation. She finally gave up and said, “She’s shy. It takes her a while to open up to a new person.”
It was a casual statement, but something about it got me thinking. A three-year-old who is reluctant to talk to strangers is a perfectly normal thing and yet, the mother felt the need to justify her daughter’s actions and give the child a label. As adults, we do this all the time. I’m guilty of this, too. We slot our children into little boxes or labels as it makes it easier for us and the world to make sense of them.
Our children are either good at academics, athletics, music, writing or art. They can be shy, obedient, boisterous, talkative, popular, respectful, quiet, naughty, irresponsible or hyperactive. The truth is we can be a little bit of everything. And while in some cases labelling a child can be affirming and give them a sense of identity, in most cases, it tends to restrict them and hampers their growth.
A child who is termed ‘irresponsible’ by his parents will start to wear the tag like a badge of honour. The parents overcompensate by doing everything for him and never letting him take responsibility, perpetuating the image that the child can’t do anything, often leading to low self-esteem.
On the flip side, a child who is constantly praised for being a ‘responsible’ child puts acute pressure on himself to perform and holds himself up to a higher ideal. If he forgets to do an important task, he beats himself up about it. He ends up being constantly anxious in his need to be responsible and live up to the tag he’s been given.
If both negative and positive labels can be restrictive and hamper your child’s development, what can we, as parents, do about it?
Be cognisant of each time you use adjectives while describing your child. Think about how you describe them to friends and family. Are you slotting them in a box? Labels can stick. Children aren’t born with labels or stereotypes. They are a work in progress. By attaching labels to them, it can restrict them from growing or developing. Children internalise their labels and stop working towards changing it, such as: ‘I’m a stubborn child’; ‘I’m an irresponsible child’; ‘I’m a shy child’; I’m a talkative child’; ‘I’m a lazy child’; ‘I’m a disruptive child’. This is just how they are and can’t do anything about it.
Labels carry messages to the child
They tell the child that he is stuck in a particular role and can’t do anything to change it. Even positive labelling puts pressure on a child to perform a certain part. Being considered a good child, an obedient child, a perfect child does not allow a child to be true to who they are and how they feel. They play a role to please the authority figures in their life without allowing themselves the opportunity to voice their thoughts and feelings, for fear of losing the title of being a good child.
Avoid labels and discuss specific behaviour
Instead of attaching labels to your child, talk about their behaviour or actions instead. Were you hesitant to talk to that Aunty in the park? Do you feel shy when you meet people for the first time? What do you think that we can do to make you feel more comfortable when you meet someone for the first time? Instead of attaching a personality trait to your child, you are giving her an opportunity to talk through her emotions or feelings. You teach your child empathy by understanding that they are having issues with a situation and helping them deal with it.
Praise or admonish the behavior
Instead of saying that they were unkind to their brothers or that he or she is a bully, address the behaviour. “Breaking your brother’s Lego model was an unkind thing to do.” Define the action and not the child. “Thank you for putting away the toys before bedtime. It was a responsible thing to do.” By praising their behaviour, it reinforces that they are a work in progress and can change or make improvements. To a forgetful child, if you say, “I’m glad you remembered to bring home your lunchbox today.” It encourages them to keep making small but steady changes in the right direction.
Give descriptive praise
When your child shows you her drawing, instead of saying, “You are a good artist”, describe what you like about the drawing. “I like how you have used so many bright colours in your art. What do you like about it?” By starting a conversation about the art and being descriptive in your praise, you make room for her to grow and develop. It makes her look at the work and effort put in rather than the apparent inherent attributes. So her art becomes something that she works hard at rather than something she is good at, without any effort.
Human beings are complex creatures with the ability to feel a multitude of emotions, have varied interests and talents while learning to cope in different types of situations. Our role as parents is to show our children that “one size does not fit all”. Each of us is unique. By removing labels, you provide your child with the space to grow and develop into an individual with different aspects to his personality, which remain a work in progress throughout his life.