How Labels Can be Harmful to Kids

Avoid labelling your child
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Sometimes parents refer to a child as a “troublemaker” or the “hyperactive one.” Although descriptive, these labels can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies that make behavior problems worse.

Sometimes, even seemingly positive labels can be detrimental too. Saying things like, “She’s my little musician,” or “He’s my soccer star,” may also limit your child’s potential.

The Label Temptation

In addition to children, there are lots of people we like to prescribe labels to.

Perhaps you claim to work for a “mean boss.” Or maybe you describe your brother as a ‘business mogul.’ We tend to place people in various categories according to their behavior or attributes.

We often use labels as a short-cut. When explaining to a friend why your mother-in-law called twice in the past hour, you might explain her behavior by saying, “She’s a worry-wart.”

Labels often organize things in our minds. Maybe you have your ‘rich friends’ and then you have your ‘musician friend’ and the ‘artist.’ These types of labels are a way for our brains to make sense of the people and things around us.

Labels Change the Way You See Your Child

The biggest problem with labelling your child is that it will actually change the way you see your child. If you label your child as a ‘genius’ you’ll begin to look for things that confirm this label. Every time he gets a 100 on a test, or each time he solves a math problem, you’ll see behavior that reinforces his label.

If however, he does something contrary to the label, you’ll likely overlook it or look for alternative explanations. For example, if your ‘genius’ fails a science paper, you may blame the teacher. Or, you might say the directions were unclear or that he was ill the day he completed the assignment.

As a result, your label is likely to stick.

Even when your child has outgrown the label, or when he’s proven that perhaps the label doesn’t fit, you’ll likely keep thinking of him in terms of your expectation.

Labels Change the Way Kids See Themselves

The other main reason that labels are harmful is because it will influence the way a child sees himself. A child who has been labelled a “little scientist” may put undue pressure on himself to perform well academically in order to live up to his label.

It may also prevent him from being well-rounded. A child who thinks he’s supposed to be a ‘musician’ may not try out for the basketball team because it doesn’t fit with his label.

Kids with behavior problems often live up to their labels as well. A child who has been told he’s oppositional, isn’t likely to be motivated to start following the rules. Or a child who has been told he has ADHD, may give up easily on boring task citing that he can’t possibly stay focused.

Encourage Your Child to be Well-Rounded

It’s good for your child to think she’s smart – countless studies show kids try harder in school when they believe this to be true—so it’s okay to tell her that she’s intelligent.

But it’s important to avoid making her think that her intelligence is the only thing she’s known for.

Point out a variety of talents and skills that your child has. This will encourage her to stay well-rounded, rather than thinking she can only be known for whatever label has been placed on her.

Praise your child’s efforts, rather than the final outcome. For example, instead of labelling her as the ‘smartest kid in the whole third grade,’ say, “You studied hard for this spelling test and it looks like your hard work paid off.” This can help your child see that you value effort, not just her natural-born talents.

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