“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me” is a phrase that was first used in 1872. 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.
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.
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 not so nice about you. How did that make you feel? It’s true, people’s words may not break your bones, but they sure hurt.
The same is true for your kid. The words you say to your kid matter more than you could ever know. Those words not only shape his personality, they also shape the relationship you develop with him, well beyond the childhood years.
According to the available research, labels alter behavior. In one study, Rosenthal and Jacobson randomly selected approximately 20 percent of the students in an elementary school and presented these students 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.
It must be said, however, that these results were met with much criticism. Moreover, they have remained inconclusive and difficult to replicate. 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.
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.
Despite the questions that surround these initial studies, we now know that how you describe your kid’s behavior will ultimately have an impact on how she behaves. We also know that there’s always a better word to describe this behavior. There are always two sides to every story. A kid who must always have the last word can also be a good negotiator. A shy kid can be an observant kid. An over-talkative kid can be a kid who is not afraid to express his opinions.
It’s always nicer to hear positive things about us than negative ones, and this holds true even for your kid. When you focus on your kid’s positive traits, you communicate what you think about them—scatterbrain or creative, nosy or inquisitive, shy or mindful.
How you describe your kid’s behavior also sets the stage for how others will see him. When you repeatedly define him as “painfully shy”, others will too, and they’re likely to view this as a negative trait. Yet when you choose a different word to define the same character, say “peaceful,” others too will be more likely to view his behavior as positive.
Yes, positive labels help build up your kid, but they do not mean you should excuse bad behavior. You must always call things “as they are.” Your aggressive kid is not a born leader, nor is your sloppy kid an artist. Hiding behind labels to avoid dealing with behavioral issues does your kid no favors.
This is what you need to 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. Don’t forget that strategies such as using positive reinforcement the right way can go a long way in getting rid of specific behavior. If you’re struggling with your child’s behavior, remember that resources such as my FREE Making Discipline Work Ecourse can help point you in the right direction.
Replacing negative labels with positive ones will ultimately change how you view your kid, her behavior, and how you react to it. Next time you’re about to describe her as “stubborn,” switch that to “knows what she wants” and see how it changes everything.
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An initial version of this piece appeared on parent.co