From shy to outgoing, difficult to easygoing, learn the negative effects of labeling kids and why you should not label children (plus what to do instead).
Why bother? I would think to myself each time I took an algebra or calculus exam.
I expected to do poorly, so I didn’t even try. After all, I was the “artistic” kid. I was creative, 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.
Of course, labeling kids usually starts with the best intentions. We believe we’re encouraging positive behavior (“Good boy!”), fostering passions (“He’s the athletic one,”) and motivating with praise (“You’re so smart!”).
But, just like the labels I grew up with made me believe I was bad at math, labels can do more damage than good.
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.
6 reasons to stop labeling kids
As parents, we’ve all fallen into the habit of labeling kids now and then, whether for good or bad. We might label one child as athletic, the other as musical. Whether aloud or in our heads, we think of one as difficult or challenging and the other as 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 the downsides of labeling kids and do my best to avoid them as much as possible.
Here are six reasons you should too:
1. Labeling kids stops you from showing empathy
Does your child seem like a “troublemaker”? As strong-willed as he might be, labeling him this way makes it difficult for you to show empathy.
You distance yourself from legitimate emotions and impulses that led him to behave this way. You’ve assigned him a personality trait—”he’s a difficult child”—instead of showing him that you understand how he feels. Connecting and communicating become more challenging.
Labeling already closes you off to seeing the situation from his point of view.
What to do instead? Ask yourself what drove him 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.
So 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 “bad.” And he might even accept these limiting beliefs about himself as true, even through adulthood.
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 could stifle other interests, or make them feel bad if they make mistakes.
After all, who knows what they’ll go on to do?
As a baby, toddler or even a preschooler, they’ll show interest in all sorts of areas. Let’s allow them to decide—over time—their own interests. They might explore all sorts of careers and activities 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
Nearly every person (whether little or grown up) changes day to day! We’re all unique—we can’t be placed into neat categories or boxes. (How boring would it be if we were all neatly labeled and categorized?)
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 many 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 a zag—it’s one of the beautiful things about watching them grow!
5. Kids falsely 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. It’s not in me.
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” might hold back from playing sports.
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. Where they learn that practice allows them to become better at almost any task and they’re more willing to take risks and explore new experiences.
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.
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From behavior to social interactions to how they learn, labeling kids does 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. He ends up feeling terrible about himself at an age when you’re trying to build his confidence.
Childhood is a time for discovery, but labels can assign interests and traits before he even knows what he enjoys. Labeling also stifles his growth and limits his potential. After all, labels incorrectly convince him that his talents are innate rather than something that can change with effort.
This applies to behavior as well. Labeling might make him believe that behavior and personality traits define who he is when he can correct, change or adapt them.
Kids (and adults) are complex and diverse—and isn’t it great that we can’t all fit into one box or another? 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 I actually like numbers, personal finance, and even—gasp!—spreadsheets.
p.s. Check out Only One You by Linda Kranz, a children’s book all about being yourself:
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Children from Biting
- 8 Keys to Explaining Emotions to Your Child
- How to Teach Your Child to Be Assertive
- When Your Child Seems to Ruin Everyone’s Day
- How to Raise Kids Who Love to Learn
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and download my PDF, 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child! Discover 5 ways to nurture and work with—not against—your child’s inner spirit and strong personality. Get it below—at no cost to you: