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Don’t Let Labels Limit Your Kid’s Future

As summer approaches, we inevitably reconnect with fellow parents at year-end school events.  Sticking on paper nametags helps avoid the embarrassment of having forgotten the other mom’s name, but that’s about it. I don’t really know where she’s from, what she does for a living, much less her aspirations and fears.  But just as quickly, many of the same parents stick a label on their kids.  Some are proud, “She’s a musician.” “He’s quite the footballer – like his dad.” “He’s a little scientist.”  And, even more often, they’re demeaning, “He’s shy.” “She doesn’t talk much.” “He’s not into sports.” “You know, she has no head for math.” Many of these labels are unconscious.  Some grow out of parental anxiety or frustration; others are nudges to pressure kids into fitting into the mold that mom or dad have in mind.  Unfortunately, labels stick and are hard to remove.  Parents may end up unintentionally fostering (or thwarting) the very habits or capabilities that they’re trying to encourage.

How Labels Shape Behavior

When I was in high school, one the pithy insights that my father used to prod us into rethinking our setbacks in school was, “children generally rise to the level of expectations set for them.”  After nearly 40 years as a clinical psychologist (and quite of few of those years working with troubled adolescents), he saw that kids tended to perform in ways that peers, teachers, and family members expected them. At home and in the schoolyard, labels like “genius”, “slow learner”, “hyperactive”, “artistic”, and “introvert” spell out these expectations for kids from a very young age.  Children hear labels again and again, and they begin to believe them. Then, they act them out.  Classmates see the behaviour and hear the label, and the label spreads.  Soon, the child become surrounded by a chorus that reinforces these behavioural expectations.

In China and other Asian cultures, external social controls (sometimes referred to as “shame” oriented cultures vs Western “guilt” oriented cultures) mean that the labels reinforced by family, friends, and teachers play a particularly strong role in guiding behaviour and defining a child’s image of him or herself.

 “Genius” and “Learning Disability” Myths

Schools can exacerbate the labelling impact by categorizing by apparent capabilities such as “gifted” or “learning disabled”.   A mislabelling incident could have derailed my own school career.  Prior to kindergarten, my neighbourhood had few young children, so I spent much of my time with adults – my father’s graduate students and family friends.  They read books; I pretended to read books. They used big words; I tried to use big words.  By the time I started first grade, I had acquired a broad and colourful vocabulary (words that a 6 year-old shouldn’t be saying in class) and wasn’t shy about sharing it with adults.  Unfortunately, my first grade teacher was not impressed by my smart-alecky manner and foul mouth.  So, pointing to my poor grade in spelling and my growing “behaviour problem” label, she sent me to the school psychologist with the hope that I could be reassigned to a class for “learning problems”.  Fortunately, my parents (including my father the psychologist) helped me resist this mislabelling.  But what if they hadn’t take the time? Or what if they had believed the teacher’s diagnosis?  Or, worst of all, what if I had believed the teacher?

More recently, an anecdote reappeared in my social media circles that reminded me of the importance of a parent’s role and vigilance in resisting labels.  The story goes that Thomas Edison brought home a carefully sealed note from his teacher and gave it to his mother.  His tearful mother read Edison the note, explaining that it said that your son is a genius. Unfortunately, this school does have adequate resources to teach him, so please teach him yourself.  Many years later after Edison has become famous and his mother had died, he came across the same piece of paper among her thing.   When he opened it and read it, he realized that it said that, “Your child is mentally ill. We will no longer allow him to attend our school.”  So, had his mother not quickly realized the danger of a label, we might be reading many labels in the dark today.

What Can You Do? The Right Start

As parents, we obviously need to remain alert and aware of where labels may be creeping into our children’s social and school interactions and how they define themselves.  But what else can we do to prevent our kids from getting pinned under a harmful or burdensome label?   Starting early – in primary school or before with the following tactics can help:

  • Be Aware. Awareness of labels can start at home.  First, parents can become mindful of inadvertently letting labels slip into family conversation.  When friends and acquaintances term our son “shy”, I’ve had to make the conscious effort to come to his defence and swap down the “shy” label.  I’ve even observed that when we let the “shy” label linger, he tends to have little to say. But when we push back with, “oh, he’s not shy,” he is likely to begin speaking up with stories, thoughts, and opinions.   Parents should be equally observant of how kids may being labelled by classmates and teachers at school.
  • Let kids speak for themselves. Encouraging children to introduce and speak for themselves also provides an important step in resisting labels.  Whether in family social situations or at school, kids should be encouraged to proudly and confidently introduce themselves and share information about what they like and what they’ve done.  When focusing on what they like and what they’ve done, kids tend to gravitate toward early passions and accomplishments where they’ve received praise.   By encouraging children to share these interests and success, we help them formulate and tell their own “story”.
  • Reinforce your belief and support. As Edison’s story presents to clearly, unwavering parental support and belief is at the heart of children’s self-esteem.  As best-selling author and psychologist, Andrea Duckworth, notes in her ground breaking book, “Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance,” the focus and determination that are supported by a child’s strong, early self-esteem are far more frequent and consistent success factors than IQ or innate talent.

Still, some form of labelling is often unavoidable – and not always harmful. Instead, kids can learn how to navigate the sea of labels that they are likely to swim in as they plunge deeper into their school (and later professional) careers. Parent can play an important role in helping children to understand what labels are, to separate them from their own identities, and then to “re-label” themselves to move ahead.

“Re-labelling” to Succeed

What if creeping labels are already shaping your child’s perception of herself? What if you have a budding “class clown,” or “slow reader,” or a son with “no talent for English”? Several “re-labelling” tactics can help you and your child, himself, learn how to push beyond these potential barriers to success:

  • Provide “turnaround” examples.  Sharing stories – either books, historical anecdotes, or family heroes – of young people who have overcome setbacks and changed the way that they were perceived or “labelled” can help a child understand labelling and build confidence.  Through these examples, he can see that his experience is not unique; his “label” is only a temporary, external description and not a reflection of the person that he is. And in some cases, stories even provide helpful guidance for overcoming a label.
  • A Kid “make-over” In the same way that televised “make-overs” transform the fat to fit and the homely to glamorous, a kid make-over can change how classmates and teachers perceive a child.  The make-over process starts by working with your child to have him or her decide (not you, the parent) what the “new version” of him looks like.   What are the top three “keyword” traits that he wants to come to mind when his peers see him?  “Studious”, “helpful”, “good at math”, “outspoken”?   Then, what are the habits that he needs to develop or improve to meet these expectations?  Are there “props” what will help him feel confident in this role?  Is there an environment or activities that help to redefine his role?  For example, a child who might be seen as “shy” or “quiet” or “timid” when he is one of the youngest or smallest students in a class might quickly find himself recast as a “leader” when shifted into a class or after school activity where he gets to help or coach slightly younger kids.
  • Help the re-label stick.  Parents can help solidify new labels and growing self-esteem by recognizing and promoting kids triumph in these new areas.  Share your child’s new successes and interests with family, friends, and within your social media circles – and do so without any reference to your child’s old traits or label.   Your child’s new “brand” is your child – focus on the new interest, success, and identify not the transformation.  At the same time, create new environments where your child can display and build his or her new ‘’brand” – a new class or new school, new extracurricular activities, clubs, and teams.
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