'Labeling' children can result in limiting self-images

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It is easy to label a child without meaning to do it. Even if it is done in a positive spirit, as praise, it can be overdone to the point where a child will reject the very thing you wish to encourage.

I was labeled "a writer" when I made up my first few poems in the third grade. As my reputation grew, I began to feel pressured into continually doing more and better poems. Soon I stopped writing entirely because I never knew whether I was doing it for pleasure or because it was expected of me. What I had started doing with joy became a dread chore.

Later it was my own decision to become a writer, but I have many friends who rejected being a musician, a dancer, a mechanic because they were labeled as youngsters and couldn't live up to the expectations that went with their tags.

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I've done it to my own children. I often find myself referring to my oldest child, Joshua, as my bright child. The implication is obvious, and the pressure to achieve in school is high. I often refer to Zach as my artistic child. It happens naturally because he loves art and shows (I think) real talent. But I'm sure there are times he'd much rather play baseball than finish his clay sculptures. That is fine with me, but I see him struggling because he has an image as an artist to uphold.

Labeling in a negative way can be very destructive to children. I am saddened by the number of times I hear mothers in the store where I work explain away simple and predictable behavior in the pre- schoolers with "He's so hyper," or even worse, saying it to the child directly: "You're so hyper."

"Hyper" (originally hyperactive) seems to have become the catchall phrase for any misbehavior, ranging from whining to bouncing or running. It should not be used. Children are expected to have a great deal of energy, and usually this can be channeled into creative or academic skills.

Sometimes older children bring home words from others and take the pride away from younger siblings by saying "that's just baby stuff," or "any dummy can do that." The older child needs to realize he or she once did "baby stuff" and be told that no one should be called dummy or stupid.

Verbal abuse is one of the major forms of child abuse. Children are hurt severely when they hear themselves called names and are repeatedly told they are worthless. They come to believe that what they hear is true, when in reality every child is valuable and has the right to think well of himself or herself.

Children need to feel self-confident. That's hard to do if they are labeled "clumsy" when they are learning coordination or if they hear "she can't do anything right" when they are learning to set the table or spell. These feelings of inadequacy carry over into adulthood. It may explain why Mary doesn't play golf, though she keeps saying she would like to, and John doesn't try for his CPA, though his boss keeps urging him to get it.

Still, as a parent, it isn't easy to ease off from labeling. The harder you think about a situation, the more you throw it out of proportion. When a friend was visiting, I said Zach was my child with the sunny disposition, instead of my artist. When the friend left, Zach reminded me that his clay sculpture was being shown at the citywide art show and asked why I hadn't mentioned it. He was hurt that I had changed his label.

On the other hand, his sister, Autumn, asked me to stop referring to her as "a great little tap dancer." She is just the same as everyone in her class, she points out, a nd she likes it that way.

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