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6 Tips to Avoid Labeling Your Child

Posted by Ryan Sanders

The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). Interested in blogging for us? Email here.

Have you ever been in a store and watched a parent berate his or her child and thought, “Wow! What a jerk! What a horrible parent!”? Has your child recently left his or her clothes strewn around the house, regardless of the number of times you’ve told him or her not to, and thought, “What a lazy kid!”? Perhaps you even yelled at your child saying, “You’re such a lazy, ungrateful child!”  

 
label avoid labeling child

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

What’s the problem with these thoughts? If you answered “labeling,” you can pass “Go” and collect $200. I often hear parents label their children, other parents, and even other children based on what they perceive to be innate characteristics, even when they don’t know who they just called a jerk or lazy.

These labels discount the impact of the situation—the environment—at the time they observe the behavior. And I’m not talking only about negative labels. Some parents use positive labels (e.g. “smart” or “the best [at something or in general])” with such frequency that they ignore or gloss over the behavior of their children that doesn’t support the labels. Their children can do no wrong.  

Why do parents label? One reason is fundamental attribution error, a form of bias that negatively affects our decision-making, including around parenting. (I’ve written two recent posts on how two other biases--optimism bias and confirmation bias--influence our decision-making.)

Consider that the parent who berated his or her child in the store might have had a really bad day or week and the parent just lost it for a moment. It doesn’t excuse the parent’s behavior, but it offers an explanation and allows for seeing the parent as he or she probably is—a loving, nurturing parent. If your child often leaves his or her clothes strewn about the house, I’ll bet that he or she is industrious in many ways, certainly not a lazy child.  

Another reason parents label is to feel better about themselves. Labeling has a very powerful effect on parents’ own sense of self-worth. These parents often see their children as “Mini-Me’s.” Their children’s behavior reflects who these parents are as parents and people. Parents who feel poorly about themselves give their psyches a boost by labeling others.

When parents use negative labels, they deny their own shortcomings as parents because, let’s face it, we’ve all said things to our children that we regret and would rather not admit we said them. When parents constantly coddle their children through the use of positive labels, it’s simply the other side of the same coin. One reason labeling is so difficult to overcome for some parents is that it is deeply rooted in propping up their fragile psyches. (It’s likely that their own parents constantly berated or coddled them.)  

Labeling a child is incredibly destructive because of its impact on the child’s self-worth. Imagine, for a moment, a child who constantly hears that she or he is lazy, dumb, or ungrateful. Imagine a child who constantly hears that she or he can do no wrong—they’re the star performer with no flaws.

  • How do those labels affect her or his sense of self-worth?
  • How do they shape the child’s interactions with parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, and friends? 
  • How do they affect the child’s ability to develop healthy relationships—platonic, romantic, and professional—that are grounded in reality, honesty, and transparency? 


Negative labels can destroy self-worth through shame. Positive labels can destroy self-worth through an overinflated ego.

It takes an entire childhood to develop a strong, healthy sense of self-worth. As a result, the negative effect on a child can start at any age. Follow these six tips to avoid labeling your child:  

1) Reflect on your childhood and how labeling might have affected you. Did your parents, relatives, or significant adults (e.g. teachers and coaches) label you? What did they call you? Think of negative and positive labels. How did you feel about the labels? How did they affect your feelings about your person (or people) who labeled you? How did they affect your childhood relationships? How do they affect your relationships today? Increasing your awareness about the affect your upbringing had on your labeling can help you identify your patterns around labeling and provide some motivation for avoiding it.

2) Ask your child the why behind the what. This tip works well with a child who can describe the reasons for their behavior. Children often want to explain themselves and be heard. Asking why opens the door to constructive dialogue, a sign of a healthy parent-child relationship. You might uncover reasons for their behavior that you couldn’t have anticipated. When your child shares his or her reasons, it provides an opportunity for guiding how to avoid negative behavior and repeat positive behavior.

3) Focus on the action, not on the actor. When your child does something positive or negative, focus on the action instead of using it to characterize. Tell your child that leaving clothes lying around is “irresponsible” rather than telling your child that he or she is “lazy.” If your child receives an excellent grade on a test, congratulate him or her on that accomplishment (e.g. “I’m so proud of you for making an A. Keep up the great work.") rather than using that accomplishment to make a general statement about your child (e.g. “You never get bad grades. You’re the smartest child I know.”).  

4) Explain the reasons for your comments. Children need and want explanations for their parents’ opinions of their behavior, especially when children’s behavior leads their parents to discipline or punishment. Tell your child why it’s irresponsible to leave clothes lying around the house (e.g. it’s negative effects on others) and why getting a good grade is so important.

Even if you apply these tips, you might slip from time to time and label your child. To keep you on the straight and narrow, apply these two additional tips:  

5) Ask your spouse (other parent), relatives, and friends to “call you out” when you label. This is a highly-effective tip, but one of the hardest to implement because it requires exposing yourself to criticism. If you are married to or live with the other parent, ask her to look for instances when you label your child. Tell her to talk with you after the incident about your labeling. Don’t discuss it in front of your child.

6) Apologize to your child when you label them. Admitting when you’re wrong will do a world of good for your relationship with your child.  

When was the last time you labeled your child?

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