Unkind labels leave a scar
The conversation was peppered with judgments and name-calling towards this woman’s child. “She’s such a little cow! I’m so sick of the attitude. She’s such a liar. She’s so lazy. If she keeps going like this she’s going to be …” and so on. Then: “What in the world will she be like once she becomes a teenager?”
Children hear what we say about them and they live up (or down) to our expectations.
Even if we aren’t giving our kids these labels verbally, they sense them. When we call our son a “boofhead” or our daughter a “pain in the backside”, they internalise the label. They believe it represents them accurately. And they live into that label.
When a boy is told he’s a knucklehead, an idiot, or worse, he believes his brain doesn’t work. We’re his parents and we must know more than him about his potential. He stops trying. He believes poor things about himself. His thoughts lead to him saying things like, “I’m dumb. I can’t do it. I’m an idiot.” His thoughts and words lead him to stop trying.
And the less he tries, the worse his life outcomes.
We can follow the same process with a girl when she is called those ugly, hurtful, and too-often stereotypical things girls are called. “You’re such a gossip. You’re a tart. You’re a busybody.” These labels change our children’s thoughts and words about themselves.
This changes their actions and impacts their destiny.
Studies have highlighted that when children are called names or bullied, their selfesteem suffers. They experience depression. They feel worthless. They may even think about taking their lives.
Putting labels on our children is bad for the kids, but calling our kids names also affects us. We all have what psychologists call “cognitive bias”. This means that our thoughts influence how we see the world – and particularly how we see other people. When we affix unkind labels to our children (or spouse, boss, or mother-in-law), we begin to see them through that filter.
If we call our child an idiot often enough, we will begin to notice innocent little things and interpret them as stupid, unthoughtful, or wrong. We’ll be quicker to be angry and judgmental. We’ll roll our eyes, sigh, and decide that our child must possess a faulty character.
And too often, these judgments become a selffulfilling prophecy. Our kids become what we label them.
The good news is that the reverse is true. We can notice what is wonderful about our child and respond to that, removing those nasty labels and applying positive ones. And our children will live up to these expectations too.
A father described the negative labelling habit he had formed with his son. He told me: “I was constantly on his back. I called him lazy, a slob, a massive stuff-up, and a whole bunch of things that were awful.” “Did that motivate him to be better?” I asked.
“No. He got worse and worse. Bad attitude, hurting his little sister. Ignoring me.” This man recognised that he needed to remove the labels.
He stopped calling his son names. Every chance he got, he hugged his son. They went for walks to the park and kicked a soccer ball. They rode bikes.
When his son did something stupid, Dad paused and said, “Do you need help?” or “I’m sure you didn’t mean it.” He replaced the labels with kindness and began to give his son the benefit of the doubt.
“It took about three days before we saw some changes” he told me. “And within two weeks he was a different kid.”
Give a child any label you want and it will stick. Make it nasty and the kids will struggle.
Make it positive and kind, and your children will thrive and flourish.