It’s tempting – and easy – to give children labels. At a very young age, they can seem very simple and predictable for us. This makes parents often assign tags to their kids, especially if they have multiple children. It’s easy to put kids into a box.
It’s clean and straightforward to categorize them, but it’s a poor parenting habit to keep up.
Here Are 10 Reasons Why Parents Should Stop Labeling Children
1. They’re Way Too Young For Labels
At a young age, children are in the beginning phase of their growth and development. They do a lot of things that aren’t severe long-term goals. Most of them aren’t even thinking much about the future, beyond the many outlandish careers, they want to be a part of, based on whatever show or movie they’re most obsessed with at the moment.
What do we mean by that? Well:
- A baby who loves to babble isn’t guaranteed to become a chatty person
- A toddler who loves building blocks isn’t guaranteed to become an architect
- A male baby who grins at female nurses isn’t guaranteed to become a “player” (and, oddly, that’s even said!)
Adults have a habit of wanting to label children much too young. Ultimately, children do all sorts of things and have all kinds of weird obsessions. While it’s good to support your kids in their interests, there’s no reason to assume that pursuit will define them forever.
2. They May Not Understand That They Are Changeable
When you label a child, even casually, as a joke, or for fun, they don’t understand that you’re just fooling around. If they’re called that label, again and again, they may begin to think that’s just what they are. They will consider their identity, and they don’t understand that they can change their area of interest if they want to.
This can have many adverse effects later on in life. For example:
- A child who is labeled “artistic” may feel bad when they lose interest in the arts, feeling like they are failing their purpose
- The child who is labeled a “footballer” may continue to pursue football just because they feel like they’re supposed to
- A child who is labeled a “nerd” may avoid trying new, supposedly “non-nerdy” things because they’re confined to the idea that that’s who they are
3. It’s A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
A negative label, primarily when given seriously and repeatedly, will wind up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Studies have shown that students labeled “gifted” will have more positive performance in class, while those labeled “not gifted” can wind up doing poorly.
But there are other ways that this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s paint a picture. Your child exhibits behavior that indicates a tendency to disobey authority. You label them a “rebel.” After years of repeated labeling, your child gives up. They think, “Fine, if they’re going to call me a rebel, I’ll show them a rebel.” Or they’ll be so caught up in the idea that they’re rebellious that they’ll never try to see if they can be otherwise.
Even positive or neutral labels can backfire. Call a kid a “jock” enough times, and they may not put in any effort in their studies because they believe their tag, considering themselves not smart enough.
4. Children Are Going To Change As They Grow
What was the first thing you ever wanted to be? An astronaut? A ballerina? A superhero? Consider how much things have changed since then!
Even daily, humans change. We’re continually growing, absorbing new experiences, and evolving. With children, there’s so much for them to learn and absorb that they’re likely going to change way more often than you do. They want to be something one day, then the next they find out about something cooler.
That’s not even counting the considerable personality shifts children can have from day to day. One day, they’re serious and somber; the next, they’re excitable and bouncing off the walls. Kids are unpredictable, and labels aren’t going to work with that.
5. It Prevents Empathy
Parents have a responsibility to be empathetic towards their children. When you label your child, you’re making it more difficult for you to feel empathy towards them. For example:
- Your child is “the smart one,” so you’re disappointed they didn’t do well on the test and express your disappointment instead of asking if something is wrong
- This particular child is “not gifted,” so you don’t pay as much attention to their grades and don’t notice tell-tale signs of problems in school
- Your child is “emotional,” so you don’t bother asking them why something has upset them because “everything upsets them anyway.”
- This child is a “rebel,” so you roll your eyes and expect no better of them when they disobey their teachers
- Your child is “shy,” so you don’t encourage them to meet guests, or make fun of them when they gather up the courage to
Even if your child tends to be sensitive, you should still be able to sit down with them and discuss their feelings about something. Also if they aren’t the sporty kind, you should always be able to talk to them about their disappointment when they don’t make the basketball team. Don’t let labels reduce your ability to try and understand your kids.
Studies also indicate that parental empathy can have a positive effect on children’s level of understanding. So if you want to raise kids who are compassionate and caring, it’s a good idea to lead by example.
6. Behavior Becomes Tough To Correct
It’s tough to get rid of a label once it’s attached. A child who doesn’t have any positive thinking about themselves in specific fields will have trouble shaking the idea that they can’t do certain things.
Instead of labeling your child, label their unwanted behavior. Don’t call a child with a short temper “angry,” “aggressive,” “emotional,” or a “shouter.” Instead, say that their tendency to blow up is unfair on the people around them and encourage them to take steps towards correcting the behavior.
If you label your child “angry,” they’re just going to accept that that is who they are, and changing their actions will be difficult. They’ll believe it is an inherent trait, and they will not have an interest in changing it. By showing them, you know they are better than their actions, you can inspire them to improve.
7. Every Trait Has A Flip-Side
There are two sides to every coin. By focusing on only the negative sides of your children’s behavior, you are ignoring the fact that these traits can also be positive. For example:
- “Bossy” children make great leaders
- “Intense” children are passionate
- “Daydreamers” are creative and full of imagination
- “Aggressive” children will fight for what they believe in
- “Wild” children are packed with energy
- “Oppositional” children are assertive
- “Rebellious” children are independent
Even if you don’t tell your children these flip sides, keep them in mind. Harness the positive sides of their flaws and show them how they can turn the bad into the good. This is much more effective than just trying to remove the behavior altogether.
Some things are a part of your child’s temperament, and trying to cut them out will not end well. Turn them into useful stuff instead, and see the vast improvements that can be made.
8. It Damages Self-Esteem
When children hear their labels, again and again, especially negative ones, they internalize those issues. Their self-esteem becomes damaged, and their positive thinking can be permanently harmed.
Children need to know that they are more than one or two traits. If their entire sense of self boils down to something negative, they will believe it. Repeatedly being told you’re stupid, not good at something, or not friendly is going to take its toll on you, and the worst part is that kids can’t defend themselves because you’re the authority to them, and you’ve probably pulled the “I know better” card a few times.
The way you communicate with your children – whether through labeling or otherwise – is always going to have a significant effect on a child’s self-esteem, positive thinking, and sense of self. Be sure you choose your methods carefully.
9. Children Are Not One-Dimensional
Children’s personalities are not yet fully formed at a very young age, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re not one-dimensional. A child cannot be just one label or only one trait. They are full-fledged people with different personality traits, complex nuances, and ups and downs.
When you see how silly children can be, and how nonsensical their actions occasionally are, it’s challenging to think of them as people. But that’s what they are! They’re never going to be just one type of person. They’re going to show multiple sides of themselves: sometimes quiet, sometimes loud; sometimes relaxed, sometimes demanding; sometimes obedient, sometimes challenging. And that’s the beauty of them!
10. Positive Labels Can Be Limiting
Some studies indicate positive labeling can be beneficial to children, but it’s still limiting. Yes, that’s right: even positive labels aren’t necessarily useful. These labels may include:
- The helpful one
- The responsible one
- The smart one
- The kind one
- The wise one
The problem with these labels is that they still reduce children down to one specific trait. It saddles them with excess pressure that they have to be that trait, or else. Besides, consider that labels like “creative” can make a child feel like they cannot be anything else, like nerdy or sports-oriented.
“Gifted” is a prevalent positive label given to bright young students, but a massive number of children defined by their giftedness eventually burn out due to the pressure placed on them. If their “gifted” abilities don’t carry forward into the future, they’re likely to wind up feeling terrible about themselves.
There is also evidence that suggests labeling a child with positive terms like “gifted” may have sound effects on the child themselves, but very adverse effects on other siblings in the family. So, for the sake of all your children, don’t label any of them!
Final Thoughts on the Risks of Labeling Children
Nothing good comes out of labeling children, even if you’re trying to do it out of positive intent. Recognize that your kids are complex, unique individuals with their own set of strengths and flaws and that they can and will change as they grow. Keeping this in mind will strengthen your bond with your children.