“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me” is a phrase that was first used in the 1800s. It was meant to teach kids that name-calling was harmless. It was one of the greatest lies ever told to kids. Words hurt. And the words we repeatedly hear can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Overhearing someone say something mean or untrue about you undoubtedly affects your relationship. Think about it. Remember the last time you overheard someone say something less-than-nice about you. How did that make you feel? People’s words may not break our bones, but they sure hurt.
The same is true for kids. The words we say matter more than we think, especially when the same words are constantly repeated. Labeling kids not only shapes their personality, it also shapes the relationship you develop with them well beyond the childhood years.
The science behind labeling kids
Howard Becker’s studies in the 1960s were among the first to try and understand how labeling kids affects their behavior. He believed that children’s deviant behavior was largely influenced by the types of judgements and labels to which these kids had been accustomed.
While Becker did not claim that these labels are what led to delinquent behavior, he argued that social labeling of kids could fuel crime and deviance. He said that:
“Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. Deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.”
In other words, Becker was convinced that labeling kids affected their present and future behavior and, especially, how they were perceived and treated.
At about the same time, other researchers took an interest in the impact of labeling children. Rosenthal and Jackson randomly selected approximately 20 percent of the students in an elementary school and presented them as “intellectual bloomers.”
All students had been given the same IQ test at the beginning of the study. They were tested again at the end of the study.
The results were surprising: First, the kids whose teachers expected enhanced performance performed better than other kids. Second, the students who had been presented as “intellectual bloomers” had significantly higher scores during the second phase of the IQ test.
What is now commonly referred to as the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect emerged from Rosenthal and Jacobson’s studies.
This phenomenon suggests that when you have positive expectations of your kid, these expectations can affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies. The opposite phenomenon—the Golem effect—suggests that low expectations lead to poor performance.
Both Becker’s and Rosenthal and Jackson’s studies have been met by quite some criticism. They have been criticized for ignoring the fact that individuals do not necessarily act in line with the labels used to describe them.
In other words, some people argue that people do not act in certain ways just because they are described using certain labels.
These studies have also remained inconclusive and difficult to replicate, and they failed to consider issues such as culture, environment and specific contexts.
What we know is that labels affect how individuals are perceived. In the cited study, the researchers suggested that when students were presented as “intellectual”, teachers were more likely to pay closer attention to them and help them overcome their difficulties. In other words, the label influenced how the kids were perceived.
Why you should stop labeling kids
Growing up, quite a few people perceived me as clumsy. So, naturally, I was one of the clumsiest kids you could ever meet. I just couldn’t seem to help myself.
Years later, when I thought back to my “clumsy period”, I noticed that I was my clumsiest in certain environments, and around the people who expected me to act clumsy. Somehow, all my clumsy episodes happened around those people.
And the funniest thing is that when I was put back in the same environment years later, the first thing I did was drop a dish, something that I hadn’t done in years! Simply being put back in that environment and around the same people made me act in ways that I thought – unconsciously – that I was expected to act.
I bet you’ve had similar experiences. We all tend to act in line with what we believe is expected of us. You are more likely to be clumsy around people who think of you as clumsy. You have less to say around people who think you’re boring. “Aggressive” kids are unlikely to stop acting aggressive when all their lives they have been consistently described as aggressive.
In other words, the labels with which we are described can lead us to believe that certain behavior is a fundamental part of our nature.
All the available research on labeling kids says that labels have a negative impact on children’s behavior. They suggest that these labels can:
- Change children’s self-concept of themselves
- Change how others perceive your child. For instance, if you always refer to your child as “shy”, others will begin to consider them as shy even when they do not display “shy behavior”.
- Make it harder to change children’s behavior because they may begin to believe that the label used to describe them describes their innate nature. In other words, if you always refer to your child as “aggressive”, this could actually give them the excuse they need to act aggressively because, after all, they are “aggressive by nature”.
- Limit your child’s potential – your child has no reason to try harder because they may believe that they are unable to change reality.
How to avoid labeling kids
We all label kids – sometimes it’s a slip of the tongue, other times it isn’t. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are doing it.
Despite the questions surrounding the available scientific research, we now know that how we describe our children’s behavior will ultimately have an impact on how they behave.
We also know that there’s always a better word to describe that behavior. There are always two sides to every story:
- A kid who must always have the last word can also be a child who always gives their opinion respectfully.
- A shy kid can also be a child who is attentive to their environment.
- An over-talkative kid can be a kid who is not afraid to express their opinions.
It is always nicer to hear positive things about us than negative ones, and this holds true even for your kid. When you focus on their positive traits, you communicate what you think about them—scatterbrain or creative, nosy or inquisitive, shy or mindful.
How we describe our kids’ behavior also sets the stage for how others perceive them.
When you repeatedly describe your son as “painfully shy”, others will too, and there are high chances that they will view this as a negative trait. Yet when you choose different words to describe the same traits, say “he enjoys his alone time,” others too will be more likely to view his behavior as positive.
While positive labels help build up your kid, they should never be used to excuse bad behavior. We must always call things as they are: your aggressive son is not a born leader, nor is your sloppy daughter an artist. Hiding behind labels to avoid dealing with behavioral issues does kids no favors.
This is what we must all remember: Changing labels does not mean excusing or overlooking careless or disrespectful behavior. It means avoiding negative terms while making a conscious attempt to correct misbehavior. It means focusing on the behavior, rather than on the child.
Do not forget that strategies such as using positive reinforcement the right way can go a long way in getting rid of specific behavior.
Final thoughts on labeling kids
“Negative labels” immediately come to mind when there is talk about why parents must stop labeling kids. But here’s the thing: even positive labels are harmful for the simple reason that they can make children believe that their behavior is innate rather than the product of specific effort.
Also, labels can lead to despair and disappointment that may prove insurmountable when a kid who has always been labeled as “clever” gets below average results.
In other words, your child can struggle with self-concept issues if the labels that they have been accustomed to are proven wrong in certain situations – as will no doubt happen several times in their lives.
Carole Dweck has researched extensively on the importance of focusing on effort and behavior, rather than on labels. She refers to this as developing a “growth mindset” and argues that children must understand that they are not powerless to change the situations that they encounter in their everyday lives.
Growth-mindset parenting involves strategies such as:
- Focusing on your child’s efforts – “You repeatedly went over your poem. Look how your efforts have paid off” (teaches your child to associate effort and success).
- Focusing on solutions – “What do you think you can try next time? (Instead of focusing on the failure).
- Focusing on what you see – “I love how you’ve used so many different colors and textures in your drawing” (Instead of “great drawing”!).
Doing away with labeling kids will ultimately change how you view your child and their behavior and how you react to it. Next time you’re about to describe them as “stubborn,” choose your words wisely and see how it changes everything.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love my Workbook “This is what it takes to raise happy and confident kids”. This workbook draws on ideas and resources from research and the world’s greatest philosophers to bring you strategies you can start using immediately.
References and further reading