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Assigning labels


Labels have the potential of limiting a child’s self-esteem.
MANY adults think that by labelling children, they can help them be what they want them to be or change their behaviour. One parent said: “By telling my child that she is lazy, I hope she will be aware of this negative trait and change her behaviour.”

This perception is something children find hard to understand. How children view themselves is based on the messages they receive from the people around them. They hear labels such as stupid, mean, conceited, kind, compassionate, pretty or ugly. They believe them and continue to act accordingly.Children often feel humiliated when they are told that they are lazy or stubborn. These negative labels stick until adulthood. Many siblings are estranged because they were told that they were the “smart one” or the “dumb one” in the family.We may all agree that negative labels are not good to use but what about positive ones? It is tempting to think that praising children, telling them that they are good or smart, will help build their self-esteem.

Both positive and negative labels on children have the potential of limiting self-esteem. Children need to find out for themselves what they can do and feel proud of their own success because they have worked for it.
Some children who are labelled as the smart ones find it hard to accept their mistakes. What has been defined by others will control children’s behaviour, making it hard for them to explore their feelings and attempt to be something they are not supposed to be.

At a parent-teacher conference, one mother stated that her four-year-old daughter is lazy. When she was asked to give a reason for such an observation, she said: “Well, my daughter does not like to do homework.” She could have said: “My daughter finds it hard to complete her homework.” Or, “When it comes to doing homework, she drags on and is rather lazy in her behaviour.”

Labels put down children’s individuality. The quiet ones may be more observant. There are more to children than what adults value as success.By putting labels on children, we are making them learn to mindlessly accept the boundaries we set for them, their abilities, their moods and their self-expression. They have to abide by the labels we put on them.Children in their early school years need to know that they can explore their potential. They can make mistakes and be wrong. If asked a challenging question, they can say: “I don’t know.” Or, they can make guesses rather than just keep quiet.

A group of children who were praised for their intelligence after the first in a series of tests, did not do so well in later tests, while the children who were praised for trying hard persevered and succeeded. The “smart” label stifled the children.I had a school friend who cheated in tests because she did not want to do badly. She was the “smart’ one and did not like the idea of being “not smart”. The possible loss was too much for her to bear.

Children need feedback on their behaviour. Let them know that they can be in control of their behaviour and make it positive. They are free to change how they act or feel when they are ready. Let children discover themselves through everyday interactions. When I asked my eight-year-old nephew how he fared in his mid-term exams, he responded by saying: “I am improving.” That’s the idea.Minimise the use of labels and allow children to realise their capabilities and learn from their own experience.

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