Can Calling Your Child "Good" Be a Bad Thing?

Family Matters on 07.25.11
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In her article called 7 Things Not to Say to a Mom of Twins, Gayle Weiswasser writes that labeling her children by using seemingly harmless statements like, "That one seems to be the shy/outgoing/funny/louder/friendlier one," isn't helpful.

Weiswasser writes:

There is a lot of shifting and changing and evolving that goes on every day, and pushing twins into roles really doesn't do anyone any good.

This doesn't just apply to twins, but all children. As Weiswasser wisely points out, over the course of a child's development, she will change and grow dramatically.

Positive Labels Can Be Harmful

Kids will practice different skills at different times of their lives, and boxing kids into categories can actually be harmful. To quote the book Superbaby by Dr. Jenn Berman:

Judgments about a child's character often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Children, assuming adults know more than they do, trust our assessments more than their own: a child who is labeled "shy" may eventually come to believe she is shy.

If your son is told he's a bookworm and so he continues to spend all of his time with his nose buried in a book, it might not occur to him to join in the social, athletic games the other kids are playing. Likewise, a girl told she's a jock might shy away from hitting the books. What avenues might that shut off later in life when our kids fall in line with a label rather than experimenting in contrary ways?

Berman says that labels, even those meant to be encouraging, can be restrictive and pigeonholing. It can also cause anxiety in a child when the child fears he isn't living up to a positive label he was given. Rather than using labels to define a child, it can be more beneficial to allow a child to focus on positive behaviors, developing skills and practicing a variety of enjoyed activities.

Obvious Examples of Bad Labels

Recently I was at the community pool, chatting with the mother of a little girl. As she was talking to me, she kept making it sound like her daughter was an absolute maniac and a terror. While her child certainly had a lot of energy, the mother was acting as if this girl were some kind of extreme case.

I saw a look in the girl's eye that was a mixture of hurt and determination as she acted out. It made me realize how young our children can be when labels confirm or perpetuate certain behavior.

I had a friend in high school whose mother assumed she was sexually active. Her mother called her some unkind names that implied the girl was sleeping around. She wasn't. While my friend didn't run out to immediately throw off the yoke of her virginity, she sure had a helluva time once she did decide to become sexually active.

Of course I can't know for sure, but it always made me wonder if my friend was abiding by the label her mother gave her. It certainly had to have had an effect on her self esteem. If her own mother believed that about her, then the girl had already suffered a consequence - the degradation of her character - for committing an act she hadn't yet considered. Plus, her mother's words opened a door she hadn't thought about opening before.

Avoiding "Good" Labels: Silly and Neurotic?

I've already noticed that I will sometimes call Alex "my good girl." Each time I do it, I'm reminded of the book Curse of the Good Girl and how oppressive such a seemingly harmless and beneficial set of "good girl" characteristics can be. But I keep calling her good. I can't help it, and I'm not sure I want to stop anyway.

I am trying to be more conscious of the words I use around Alex, with varying degrees of success. Tip-toeing around labels is something I'm going to keep working on. Even though sometimes I can't help wondering if the avoidance of positive lables is yet another opportunity for my generation to be neurotic parents.

Katie Morton is the founder of The Monarch Company. Get a FREE copy of her eBook, 10 Steps to a Blissful You, to get started on developing extraordinary willpower for life.

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