Un­kind la­bels leave a scar

The Advertiser - - WEEKEND EXTRA - YOUR GUIDE - AD­VER­TISER.COM.AU SATUR­DAY SEPTEM­BER 30 2017

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.

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