Why Parents Should Avoid Labelling Children

Many parents are aware of how damaging it is to give children negative labels such as ‘troublemaker’ or ‘problem child.’ However, any form of labelling can be harmful to kids.

Without realising they are doing it parents often define a child as sporty, academic or creative from a young age. Children internalise what they hear, and this can have a big impact on their identity.

Here are three reasons ‘labelling is disabling.’

Labels are Limiting 

If a child is told their main talent is their academic ability, they may build their identity around being ‘smart’ and avoid other activities such as sport. On the other hand, a child who is labelled as sporty may believe they’ll never be good at school and give up trying.

This is particularly a problem in families with multiple kids. If one child is defined as the ‘musical one,’ a sibling who loves music may be discouraged from learning an instrument because they’re not as good as their brother or sister.

One of the biggest issues with labels is the focus is on excellence. The message labels send kids is that you have to be good at something to pursue it with passion.  All children, regardless of ability should be encouraged to try their best and get enjoyment from all activities.

Labels are Lazy 

Packages have labels so we know what’s inside, but people are not that simple. Just as it’s hard to remove the sticky label from a package, it can be hard to get rid of a label once it’s been applied to a child.

For parents, labels can become a lazy shorthand for how to treat a child. For example, if a student who is considered academically gifted comes home with a bad report card the reaction may be very different to the same report card for a child defined as ‘sporty.’

While there’s nothing wrong with recognising your child’s aptitudes, it’s important not to make this the foundation of their identity.

Labels are Self-fulfilling 

What children hear about themselves and the expectations set for them will affect them for the rest of their lives. In a famous study in 1965 Rosenthal and Jacobson found that the simple act of telling teachers that randomly selected students were ‘bloomers’ led to these students making major improvements compared to the rest of the class.

Because teachers expected these children to demonstrate more intellectual development, this influenced the way they treated these students, and the label became self-fulfilling.

Children need space and time to explore all aspects of their identity. In this instance, the label of ‘bloomer’ had a positive outcome for selected students, but labels can pigeon-hole children and prevent them fulfilling their potential.

How to avoid labelling kids

Be conscious. Be aware of how you think about your child. Do you already have a set idea of what they are and aren’t good at?

Watch your words. Take notice of what you say to your child and to others when you talk about them.

Praise effort. Reward effort, not the outcome. You want your child to grow up with the courage to step outside their comfort zone.

Appreciate individuality. Make the effort to recognise all the different aspects of your child.

Reinforce choices. Labels can take away a child’s sense of agency. Make sure they know they have choices and ultimately, it’s up to them to decide what kind of adult they’ll become.

Avoiding labels allows kids to grow and change.