When I was young, I lived in the same neighbourhood as a known troublemaker. A boy who always caused trouble, who hung around with the ‘wrong group’ and who did things that were illegal. He only had to show his face and everybody went on their guard. As a child, it came naturally to me to stay alert when seeing him, and because everyone talked about the boy as being a troublemaker, it never even crossed my mind to doubt his ‘negative personality’. At the time, I was unaware of the long-term effects of using labels. Now, I feel very lucky to be aware of the consequences that labels have on someone’s behaviour.
1. Labels amplify the behaviour
When a child hears he or she is a brat, lazy, clever, beautiful, smart, sweet, a pest, time after time, you risk the child believing what is being said, identify with the label, and behave accordingly. So, lazy children will stay lazy, and nasty children will stay nasty. Hardly any benefit, don’t you agree?
But what about positive labels? Labels like ‘sweet’, ‘beautiful’, clever’, etc?
2. (Positive) labels may lead into an unhealthy development of the child
A child who has identified himself with the label ‘sweet’, will have problems showing the opposite behaviour, like ‘anger’ simply because ‘sweet’ children usually not show any anger. Accordingly, ‘clever’ children will have problems making mistakes or admitting to these, because clever children are supposed to know everything. This way, an unhealthy development is being encouraged. Everyone is allowed to be ‘stupid’, ‘angry’, ‘unkind’ or ‘clumsy’ at some point, don’t you agree? The more frequently and the longer you use a certain label, the more difficult it will be for your child to be something else.
Furthermore, the use of positive labels may lead into dependency. To the child, a positive label may feel like a reward and the child may alter his or her behaviour in order to receive the ‘reward’, the positive label. Because the child becomes dependent and is willing to change his or her behaviour, the child will ultimately lose his or her authenticity!
3. People, as well as children, feel uncomfortable when labels are used
Most people feel very unhappy when others use labels. They are inclined to defend themselves. “You think I am clever? No way, he is much cleverer than I will ever be!” or: “You think I suck? What about yourself?”
4. Labels are ambiguous messages
Not only to your child, but also to yourself.
When my child is playing and I’m reading a book, I sometimes would like to say: “You are so sweet, playing like that.” at the same time I wonder: ‘What does ‘sweet’ mean? What is my message exactly? That she is playing? Without making any noise? Or do I simply want to share that I feel relaxed, being able to read this book?
5. Labels evoke unnecessary feelings with others
a. Using positive labels: have you ever heard parents and/or grandparents brag about their clever, beautiful, wonderful children? I, for one, don’t like listening to words like this, because they are so hard to believe. So I refuse to let it all in. On the other hand, if they told me how they enjoyed the company of their children and felt so proud of them, I wouldn’t be able to stop listening, simply because I would believe everything they were saying.
b. Using negative labels: when somebody tells me a certain child is a ‘difficult child’, my view of that person is influenced immediately. While the child on the other hand may want to show me his or her other side, and I would really love to focus on that other side, knowing he or she is ‘difficult’, makes it hard to see that other side.
So, overall, there are many reasons not to use labels. But then, what can you do?
Personally, I use as many ‘I-messages’ as I possibly can, to clarify how I feel when my child behaves in a certain way.
Something similar to:
“Because you’re playing with your toys, I’m able to read my book and I’m enjoying that very much.”
“Thank you very much for helping me out cleaning up the table, now I can finish my chores sooner, how wonderful, that makes me so happy.”
“When I see you running through my garden, my plants will die and then I will need to buy new ones!”
After so many years, I am curious to find out the real story behind the boy from our old neighbourhood. I would be interested in knowing which side he had been hiding from the world. I hope he had the opportunity to show his other side to somebody, somebody who was aware of the long-term effects of labels.