We opened the wrapping paper to reveal a T-shirt with the words “Trouble in training”. It might be a cute gift at first but labels can stick, and even when the child has outgrown the label (and the T-shirt), it can leave behind an indelible residue in the psyche.

Every parent knows how damaging a nasty label can be to a childs self esteem. We all understand the impact of insults like useless or idiot or stupid yet we readily call our children shy, tough, smart, naughty, pretty, gifted, spirited, special, high needs, fussy eater, asthmatic, sensitive … the list is endless and whether the label is positive, negative or neutral, it is unavoidably harmful to parents and children alike.

Whats wrong with a label? Labels have the potential to limit self esteem and define self image. As soon as they are conscious of self, all children begin to search for identity. If we readily provide one, it may be borne like a trademark far beyond its usefulness. Or the label may come to be used as a means of behavioural control, diminishing the authenticity of parent child communication.

Dr William Sears writes on his website, “Children measure their own value by how they perceive others value them. And in our measuring-and-testing society, childrens skills – and therefore their value – are measured relative to others.”

So if self image is how we perceive ourselves, then surely the labels that a child hears applied to him/herself will affect that perception? Its tempting to argue, “But its a positive label!” however the affect is equally limiting to our childrens self perception because the label has not emerged from their own experiences and achievements. It has been imposed upon a child as an exterior application in a limited context. Perhaps a metaphor will help to explain:

In India and Thailand trainers teach young elephants to stay in their place by tethering their legs with heavy chains to deep stakes in the ground. The elephants eventually become so accustomed to their restraints that they stay in place, even when they become strong enough to pull up the stake and run free. Older elephants become so conditioned in their training that the tether and stake are no longer required. The heavy chain anklet is enough to prevent them from straying. The elephants unwittingly maintain their place, even though they are no longer bound by physical restraints. Such is the nature of conditioning.

Labels devalue our childrens individuality and the unique combination of qualities that make them them. Labels unnecessarily simplify what is necessarily complex and therefore serve to reduce and define. Like the elephants, our children learn to mindlessly accept the restraints we impose upon them, their abilities, their moods, their self expression. By applying labels to our children we are unconsciously conditioning them to limit their potential; to subscribe to the label we give them. Labels communicate to children that their behaviour is predetermined and static (I am always and ever my behaviour), creating and reinforcing a situation of diminished flexibility and choice.

Foundations of self worth are laid in the toddler and preschool years when social intelligence is emerging and parental feedback is a childs first measuring stick. The affect intensifies as the field of social influence expands. Much confusion and crisis can arise if our existing self perception is not aligned with the feedback we receive from our social interactions. From school age onward, peer influences receive greater importance and the teenagers ability to assert herself will be a direct result of the foundations of self image established in the formative years.

Consider how eating disorders might emerge from a young womans unconscious desire to retain the pretty identity of her childhood. Imagine the emotionally repressed young man who was repeatedly urged to be tough and never permitted to show his feelings. Consider how a child perceiving him or herself as good or polite might be unable to reject the advances of an adult predator. To take away their label is to take away their identity. If they are not pretty or tough or good or polite, then what are they? These examples may seem extreme, but all of us can write a short list description of ourselves with similarly defining labels. Loyal, hardworking, patient, kind …. Most of us also have a list of ready insults for ourselves. Yet personality is dynamic and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We are more than a list of qualities and attributes. We are not our behaviour!

As a school child, I once knew a girl whose self image was so tied up in being smart and being right that she regularly broke down and cried if she incorrectly answered the teachers question. She could not resolve her identity as a smart girl with the necessary ability to learn by making mistakes, taking risks, being wrong. I now know she grew up to have a perfectly respectable career as an accountant so, thankfully, the impact was not debilitating. However it is perceived as a very safe career for smart people. I wonder what limiting self perceptions we have all been conditioned to bear from childhood into adulthood and how much self development work we have later put into overcoming them. I also wonder how easily individuals who are unencumbered by limited self perceptions might go about discovering and fulfilling their talents and passions. Wouldnt we like our children to be the ones to find out?

Im by no means suggesting we raise our children in a bubble. There will always be situations where avoiding the labeling communications of others is virtually impossible. Some children will be naturally more robust than others in receiving labeling communication. But minimising labels, particularly from birth to seven is important for protecting a childs emerging identity.

Haim Ginott, clinical psychologist, child therapist, parent educator, and highly quotable author urged us to, “Address the behaviour, protect the personality.” His books had a significant impact on how adults relate to children in the 1970s. He is famously noted for saying, “Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.” His work also inspired the title of this article.

In neuro-linguistic terms, “You are …” and “He is …”, “Be …”, or “Dont be such a …”, comments unhelpfully evaluate the child in terms of the adults value of the behaviour and should be avoided.

“When you … I feel …,” “I like/dont like that you did …”, or, “That is/was …” or even more specific descriptions that clarify whether behaviour is useful or not, safe or not, clever or not, etc, present behaviour as separate from the childs value as a human being.

Instead of diagnosing behaviour, from our cultural, social or personal stand point, we can recognise and validate the motivation behind it. Rather than defining a child as shy, it becomes possible to observe positive qualities associated with her behaviour. For example, “She sometimes likes to watch for a while before joining in…” is neither positive nor negative in terms of social acceptability. Describing past behaviour avoids creating expectations for what will take place in the future. Consider the difference between, “Hes a naughty boy,” and “He did something naughty today.” The first defines the child absolutely, creating anticipation or expectation in listeners and leaving no scope for a childs self esteem. The second may be a true account of a situation, avoiding creating expectations of ongoing behaviour and leaving room for improvement.

Some labels are merely euphemisms for behaviour that society deems unacceptable: spirited, special, challenging, willful. And while the euphemism might serve to expand the boundaries of acceptance for parents and society, it still serves to limit a childs self image by excluding out of character behaviour from their unconscious response repertoire.

Labels will inevitably define the expectations of others in the childs company. Such expectations limit our ability to respond spontaneously to new behaviour. Terms like challenging, willful and even the much favoured spirited will only serve to create anticipation in new acquaintances without presenting any evidence to justify the label. Children deserve to be received by new acquaintances without judgment, criticism or expectation.

If we still perceive our child in terms of a label, are we then willing to coerce them into fulfilling our expectations of them according to that label? Consider how we might treat an outgoing child if she suddenly feels reserved or cautious in new company. Or what might we say to a well behaved child who is experiencing hunger or tiredness or other personal stresses? Consider how we might use a label to shame a child into conforming to our adult expectations, effectively using a childs sense of identity as a means of behavioural control.

Labels then become a means of influencing behaviour by equating the value of the childs behaviour with the value of the child (I am my behaviour). Positive labels reflect acceptance (I am good). Negative labels reflect non acceptance (I am bad). Children naturally seek security and stability and so learn to alter their behaviour to seek approval and acceptance or to avoid consequences and non acceptance, whether this objective serves them well in their relationships or not. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming this is referred to as Other Referencing, where someone relinquishes their own authority and common sense in favour of anothers opinion, belief or doctrine.

Children are quite capable of learning developmentally appropriate behaviour through observing role models in their environment. They dont need to be taught to be polite or be kind where polite or kind role models are in ready supply (and if theyre not, how do children understand what it means when theyre told to be polite or be kind without having observed and experienced polite and kind behaviour?). By providing role models it becomes possible to avoid imposing labels on our children for the sake of social conformity and become willing to honour our children exactly as they are. Unburdened of expectations, it becomes possible to receive uncharacteristic behaviour without judgment and to even delight in new behaviour that surprises us; to respond rather than react to our children.

High needs and spirited are two terms that have gained social acceptance in natural parenting circles. While its true that there is enormous variety in the needs and energy levels of children across the population these terms reveal as much about the parent as they do about the child. More accurately, the communication could be, “I find it hard to respond to her needs,” “I dont know how to receive to his behaviour,” “I dont cope so well with his high energy levels.” It is certainly understandable, even desirable, to use language to shift our perceptions and expectations – particularly if it enables greater respect and tolerance on the parents behalf – but we must acknowledge that all labels are relative to the expectations of the person applying them and the result is still limiting to parents and children due to the boundaries enforced by such labels.

If we are to help our children develop a realistic understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses then we must refrain from imposing our ideals on our kids through the use of labels and give them their own space to grow. We can communicate our childrens worth to us without labels by:

Using their names and employing eye contact and touch

Appreciating, and communicating our appreciation of, their uniqueness

Treating life as a practice run and leaving room for mistakes

Interacting and engaging with them every day

Documenting their achievements (displaying their work and otherwise recording their experiences)

References: http://www.uwex.edu/ces/flp/pp/pdf/esteem.pdf Haim Ginott, “Between Parent and Child”http://eqi.org/ginott.htmNeuro-Linguistic Parenting, PDF, Keith Gilbert (see issue 14, Natural Parenting Magazine)www.askdrsears.com/html/6/T061500.asp

“Every infant whose needs are met has self-esteem built in. Like an arborist caring for a tree, your job is to nurture whats there, do what you can to structure your childs environment so that she grows strong and straight, and avoid whittling away at the tender branches. You cant build your childs self- esteem compliment by compliment, activity by activity. Parents are already overloaded with guilt because they may not be doing enough to foster their childs self-worth. You dont need a degree in psychology to raise a confident child. Much of parenting is easy and fun. Hold your baby a lot, respond sensitively to her needs, enjoy your baby. Then sit back and enjoy the person whose self-esteem is developing naturally.”

Dr William Sears – 12 Ways to Help Your Child Build Self Confidence