6 Reasons to Stop Labeling Kids

From shy to outgoing, difficult to easygoing, learn the negative effects of labeling kids and why you shouldn’t label children.

Labeling KidsWhy bother? I would think to myself each time I took an algebra or calculus exam in high school.

I expected to do poorly, so I didn’t even try. After all, I was the “artistic” kid. I was creative and a wordsmith, not a “math person.” As I grew up, I never considered I could do well in math classes, even throughout college.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the downsides of labeling kids, and that I can be good at math. That anyone can do nearly anything, especially if they focus on effort instead of innate traits and characteristics.

Of course, these kinds of labels usually start with the best intentions. We try to encourage positive way to behave (“Good boy!”), foster passions (“He’s the athletic one,”), or motivate their academic ability (“You’re so smart!”).

But, just like the labels I grew up with made me believe I was bad at math, the use of such labels can do damage as well.

They limit and put people in boxes, leading us to conclude what we can and can’t do. What begins as praise and encouragement quickly snowballs into permanent labels that are difficult to shake off.

As parents, it’s easy to label our kids, whether for good or bad. We might label one child as athletic, the other as musical. Whether aloud or in our heads, we think one is difficult or challenging and the other is easy-going.

Each time we do this though, we fall into the labels trap without realizing the limiting effects and consequences. I’ve since learned its downsides and do my best to avoid them. Here are six reasons you should too:

1. Labeling kids stops you from showing empathy

Some kids can seem like a “troublemaker,” but as strong-willed as they might be, labeling them this way makes it difficult for us to show empathy.

We might distance yourself from legitimate emotions and impulses that led them to behave this way. We’re likely to assign him a personality trait (“he’s a difficult child”) instead of showing them that we understand how they feel. Connecting and communicating become more challenging.

And labeling closes us off to seeing the situation from their point of view.

What can you do instead? Ask yourself what drove your child to behave this way. What had bothered him enough to hit his sister? What needs to change so he doesn’t do it again?

Imagine how different discipline can be when you correct the behavior instead of assuming this is simply who he is. Yes, he hit his sister, but now you can show empathy and learn why he did.

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2. Labeling kids makes them feel bad about themselves

Your child hears what you say about him in conversations with other adults.

When you say, “Oh, he’s shy. He won’t do it,” or “I’m sorry—he’s so rowdy all the time,” he’ll believe what you say and that his shyness or rowdiness is “bad.”

Never mind that being reserved or having plenty of energy aren’t bad qualities. He might be introverted, feel stranger anxiety, or need to get his energy out.

He’ll feel self-conscious about being “rowdy and rambunctious” or “timid and shy.” He’ll believe that his feelings, choices, and actions make him a “bad person.” And he might even accept a negative perception about himself as true, even through adulthood.

stranger anxiety in toddlers

3. It’s too early to label kids

We’ve all heard, “Oh, he’s going to be an engineer!” the minute our kids show a remote interest in how cars or machines work. Or, “Wow! She’s going to be a talkative one!” when they hear your baby happily babbling along.

Although friends and family mean well, these labels (even positive ones) assign kids a future at a very young age. Do this often enough, and the labels can stifle other interests, or make them feel bad if they make mistakes.

After all, few people know what they’ll go on to do this early in life.

Young kids will show interest in all sorts of subjects. Let’s allow them to decide—over time—their own interests. They might even explore all sorts of careers and hobbies over the course of their lives. Labeling them as an “athlete” or a “girly-girl” early on boxes them in.

4. Labels can be inaccurate

Children change day to day. In fact, we all do—we can’t be placed into neat categories or boxes.

Kids might act serious one day and hilarious the next. One day your toddler might smile and wave at every stranger, and the next cling to your leg or hide in your shoulder. He might deliberately disobey, then minutes later follow instructions to the letter.

Humans are capable of complex emotions, behaviors, and personalities—kids included.

It’s impossible to label someone and predict each action they’ll take. Every day, kids surprise us with their ability to zig when we expect them to zag—it’s one of the beautiful things about watching them grow!

Clingy Toddler

5. Kids believe talents are innate and unchangeable

As a child develops and discovers her abilities, she might believe her talents are innate and unchangeable. Rather than understanding the value of practice and hard work, she can be easily discouraged and believe, I can’t do it, even if I try.

You see, if she’s labeled as athletic, artistic, or bookish, she starts to believe that label is her identity.

She might believe that sports are the only thing she does well or that science is the only class where she shines. A “jock” might feel she can’t explore art or that she’ll never be good at reading, and a “bookworm” can assume she’s not good at basketball.

Kids are more likely to do well in school and take on new endeavors when they don’t see these doors as out of reach. They learn that deliberate practice allows them to become better at almost any task. And they’re more willing to take risks and explore new experiences.

Expert tip

Use descriptive praise, not evaluative, to support your child. Descriptive praise like, “Wow, you practiced the violin and hit those notes!” describe what she does. Evaluative praise relies on other people’s opinion, “Wow, you’re so good at violin!”

6. Labeling kids makes it harder to correct behavior

Whether explicit or implied, labels are hard to shake off. When disciplined, your child believes that your negative feelings and words are directed at him as a person, rather than at his behavior.

If he knows hitting is “wrong,” then it’s easier to correct, especially if you reassure him that you love him no matter what—even if he misbehaves. But if he’s labeled as a “hitter” or “aggressive,” then the hitting behavior becomes much harder to change.

After all, how can he change who he supposedly is as a person?

He might wonder if it’s really worth the effort to curb his behavior if this supposed trait is inherent in him. Correcting the action or working through a feeling is more possible than changing his personality.

How to Discipline a Toddler Who Hits


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From behavior to social interactions to how they learn, labeling kids can do more harm than good (even with good intentions).

Labels can make it difficult to show empathy when your child struggles to behave—whether consciously or not, you start to believe in the labels too. Labeling might make her believe that behavior and personality traits define who she is when she can correct, change, or adapt them.

Childhood is a time for discovery, but labels can assign interests and traits before she even knows what she enjoys. Labeling also stifles her growth and limits her potential. After all, labels incorrectly convince her that her talents are innate rather than something that can change with effort.

Kids (and adults) are complex and diverse—and isn’t it great that we can’t fit into neat categories? None of us have just one or two traits, talents, or areas of expertise. We’re not bound to labels—so let’s do our best to stop labeling kids.

Because as it turns out, I learned that I actually like numbers and math, after all.

p.s. Check out Only One You by Linda Kranz, a children’s book all about being yourself:

Only One You by Linda Kranz

Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child below—at no cost to you:

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  1. This is a great article that helps identify what we do as parents, caretakers, family members, etc that can hinder the growth of our children. I would love to see more information about what we can do that encourages growth and confidence.
    I have read a few books along this very subject and they all indicate we should describe what we see as opposed to labeling. By way of example, if a child draws a picture and brings it to you, you can choose to label and say, wow, you are so artistic. Conversely, you could describe what you see and say, I see trees and birds and clouds. The former tells your child that he/she is something specific (artistic) and not only hinders personal growth, but doesn’t show him/her that you really paid attention to what is being presented. If you chose the latter of those by describing what you see, your child will likely become excited and engaged that you are truly seeing what they are trying to show you and will be more apt o continue drawing in an effort to show you even more.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Totally agree, Nicole! We should try to describe as it is as opposed to what they say is “evaluative” comments, where we place judgment, whether good or bad. Now, I do make an exception when it comes to identifying with ways of being, such as being kind, committed, responsible, trustworthy, etc. In those cases, I do attribute it to who they are being. But other things especially academics, talent, behavior, etc are best left to be described, and in a way where nothing is ever permanent—that they can always change.

      Your example of the painting is exactly what I mean. We must be reading the same resources 🙂 Another thing to add about simply describing the artwork as opposed to saying whether it’s good or bad, is that decreases the likelihood of kids needing others’ approval. They’ll find that good feeling within themselves, instead of searching for approval from others as a way to get it. In other words, they will continue to love painting for instance, because they love it, not because others will praise them for it. And conversely, they won’t stop painting even if they love it, because they didn’t get the reaction they wanted from others.

  2. My eldest hit the ground running and was extremely social with everyone she met. Her younger sister is quite the opposite and would rather slink to the shadows. I understand her perfectly as I can relate but the school system is very unforgiving of children that do not speak up. She gets overlooked and often comes home missing assignments and material needed for homework. It is not easy being the shy kid.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      It’s rough when the school system or society at large favor one type of personality trait at the expense of the others. We all shine in our own ways, and I totally understand what you mean about schools celebrating the outgoing types. Hopefully her teacher can see her brilliance exactly as she is.

  3. Your blogs is, as always, spot on. My son takes his time to make himself comfortable in new environments. What other things can we say in addition to “Looks like he doesn’t feel like saying ‘hello’ right now”? I don’t want him to feel that we have to justify his behavior like it is a bad thing. Thank you for your insight, very useful as always.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Carolina!

      It’s definitely tough when adults overwhelm our kids, and we feel compelled to justify their behavior. Besides saying that she doesn’t feel like saying “hello” right now, you can also suggest that she give a high-five or a wave instead. Or depending on your relationship with the adult, you can joke and ease them into backing off and say something like, “Personal space!” or interject on her behalf. Or sometimes I’ll just answer for them, if an adult asks my kids questions.

  4. When my daughter acts more reserved than outgoing, I do everything I can to respect that feeling. Ever since she was an infant I have told people, family included, that she’s like a teabag: give her time to steep, don’t push her, and enjoy when her playful nature feels secure and comes around on its own. I know my spouse struggled more with it, particularly with our families, but that was more him responding to their pressure, and in a way, I’m glad he was there to take that pressure in place of it all being laid on our daughter.

    I am totally an echo chamber of agreement for your sentiment that “shyness” is to be respected. I’m thankful she takes time to trust new people. She does need to practice that now so it is a well sharpened tool later in her life. Discernment and wisdom are valuable and I’m always surprised when people don’t respect children’s space to learn those traits. That we even have a word to call them—shy—takes away from the fact they are just being three dimensional human beings, not willfully impolite. The pressure of society is intense but I’m proud to be my daughter’s advocate as she learns the way she will navigate. She needs to be able to trust the feelings deep in her gut and I can’t spend her childhood telling her to ignore them only to ask my teenage into adult daughter why she didn’t “go with her gut” about a person or a situation.

    Thank you for writing about this important topic!!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      What a fantastic reflection on this phenomena about labeling children “shy.”

      I especially love the point you made about nurturing this “inner gut” now when the stakes aren’t so high in childhood. What mixed messages we send kids when we doubt their instincts or make them feel bad for being more reserved. And I love the tea bag analogy—yes, let them steep! I think we worry too much about offending others, or what others might think of our kids, when truly, this behavior is not only normal but a pretty healthy sign of good attachment and survival skills.