Living Up To The Label

Summer-time moves fast.
It often seems that the relaxed and easy pace of summer doesn’t quite ever settle over us. We drive from one camp to the next, or zoom to the park after a long day of work, or try to get each promised play date in before our next week’s road trip. All this activity when summer is supposed to provide a slow pace can be a bit irksome.

We have a vision of what summer should be, because we have labeled it as relaxing. This label makes a real impact on us, because whenever I talk to people about summer one of their first comments is: “Summer is supposed to be slow paced, but I am just running around like a maniac.” When we as parents realize that a label we are using isn’t accurately reflecting what is going on, we can do one of two things. We can change the label to make it more accurate, or we can live up to the label that we prefer. The choice is ours.

Labeling has great effects on people too. Often in our rush to get from one place to another, or our crabbiness over the heat and our lack of a swimming pool, we utter things that become labels. We can fill in the blanks for the following statements: “That driver is an ___________”. “Your room is a _________”. “I burned our dinner on the grill, I am such a _________.” The labels that we use in these situations tend to reflect what we are feeling. But do they reflect the whole picture–do they reflect what we most want our children to be hearing us talk about?

Children are constantly listening to us, and they pick up the meaning of what we are saying through the tone of our voice and our choice of words. For this reason we have a responsibility to be sure that the words we are saying are the words we most want them to hear as an explanation for what is going on. The short-hand labels that we often resort to because we are in a hurry, or not too happy about a situation, can be incorporated into our children’s understanding of the world.

What about the labels we sometimes use for our children? Children will live up to the expectations that we have of them, and so our expectations should be consistently clear and help them to see the strengths that they have in a situation. If we use labels for our children that show our low expectations, our children may not strive to achieve what we are hoping for them. If we use labels that belittle their abilities, they may not be motivated to work toward success.  For example, if your boss in a moment of very justified exasperation told you huffily that you were “a lazy employee, stubborn and messy”, would you be inclined to go back to your projects with the energy that is required of you?  If instead your boss, still exasperated, said “I am frustrated by your work today.  The project did not get done and we have to finish it by our deadline to please our client. I expect this to be finished by tomorrow.” You may feel differently about yourself and your boss.  In both situations the frustration came through, but the effect of the words is very different.

If sometimes you use labels that don’t help your child feel successful, find a way to look at the whole situation to encourage a sense of accomplishment. Often a child who is labeled as shy can also be seen as cautious. A child who is seen as stubborn can also be seen as determined. A child who is seen as nosy can also be seen as curious. A child who is seen as messy can also be seen as self-sufficient–because the messes she makes are likely due to wanting to accomplish things on her own. By shifting the words toward showing your child her strengths, you can convey that you are proud of who she is as a person. Remember that the child who feels better about herself does better in most situations.

One of my favorite posters at our Harley Family Center offers positive labels for children from every letter of the alphabet. Here are some samples of supportive labels you can give to your child:

Amazing
Believable
Childlike
Delightful
Energetic
Fallible
Gifts
Here Now
Innocent
Joyful
Kindhearted
Lovable
Magical
Noble
Open-Minded
Precious
Questioners
Resourceful
Spontaneous
Talented
Unique
Vulnerable
Whole
Xtra special
Yearning
Zany

When you get the urge to use a label, take a moment to assess the whole situation first and use a word that supports your child’s strength. See how your family’s interaction turns out differently than what it might have with your original label!

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