When I talk to groups of mothers about how labeling children wounds kids, they nod knowingly and feel proud of themselves that they never attach such negative labels to their children.
But parents often don’t realize "good" labels—the smart one, the funny one, the pretty one, the good one—can hurt just as much.
Children are quite literal. They believe what you tell them and they believe that you believe what you tell them.
If you label your child out of affection or as a way to describe them to others, know you are not alone. Let me share a few examples of labels I’ve seen with families recently.
The baseball player
Andy, a gifted baseball player, had played since he was hardly big enough to swing a bat. Everyone knew he loved baseball. Friends and family members were always asking, "How’s that pitcher of ours?" In this family, Andy’s label was "the baseball player." In high school he was the star pitcher on the varsity team. College coaches from all over the country courted him. While never overtly discouraging his academic or social interests, his parents actively encouraged him to devote more time to his batting and pitching practices. Before long, he became tired of being, in his words, "just the baseball player." In frustration, he decided to quit baseball, telling his parents, "Don’t you see, I am more than just a baseball player!"
Andy had come to believe that people loved him only because of his baseball talent.
Children need to be encouraged to challenge themselves, even in areas where they may not excel. Being labeled, even positively, often stifles a child’s willingness to explore other interests. Or, as in Andy’s case, makes him reject anything that connects him to that label.
The good girl
Caroline was a very well-behaved child. Donna, her mother, had never been complimented herself as a child, so she decided she would praise her children often. She applauded Caroline for putting her toys away before she was asked. She regularly told Caroline how proud she was of her for following rules, for washing her hands before dinner, for doing whatever was asked of her and for never fussing about anything. Donna often referred to Caroline as her good child. But instead of Caroline growing up to be a self-confident adolescent, she struggled. She followed rules beautifully, but she couldn’t think creatively or try new things. She felt crushed or unlovable if she ever made a mistake. She wanted to live up to her label of being the good one, but found it exhausting.
A child strives to match the labels she is given, whatever that label is. Often, kids labeled with positive characteristics believe they are loved for being the good girl or the smart one or the quiet one. A labeled child often wonders if he would be as loved if he were not so handsome (or funny or well-behaved). Assigning a label to a child frequently limits that child’s ability to explore other aspects of himself because he worries he will lose others’ admiration or love if he no longer fits the label.
What children really need and want is to feel loved simply for existing.
The smart one
Sondra, the mother of three brilliant, delightful children, refers to the oldest as her social child, the middle as the funny one and the youngest as the smart one. She feels proud she is identifying and complimenting the strengths of each. Yet despite these positive labels, her children are intensely competitive with each other. The youngest tries to show how funny she can be, while the middle one tries to gather more friends than his older sister. They each fight to prove themselves worthy of the other kids’ labels.
Some labeled children become highly competitive, stopping at nothing to prove that they are just as smart and deserving of parental applause as their talented sibling. They try to out smart the so-called "smart one," or to be more beautiful than "the pretty one." Instead of working toward self-discovery or self-improvement, or pursuing their own interests, they try to excel at what their parents value in their siblings. If Mom and Dad express pride in their sister’s art skills, they want to show artistic talent as well. Rather than pursuing interests that are unique to themselves, they constantly struggle to be what they believe their parents want them to be.
Parents who label their children with positive attributes usually believe they are helping them achieve some individuality in the family and boosting their child’s self-esteem in the process. But focusing on the child’s skills or beauty or other qualities that are not actually about the child as a person may have the exact opposite impact.
What to do
Instead of labeling your child, even with a good label, focus on what he is doing and feeling. Tell him, "You really love to dance." Ask her, "What is it that made you choose to use that color?" or "What do you like about …?"
Compliment the underlying quality of a behavior instead of focusing on a specific action. Tell your child how proud you are of his thoughtfulness rather than calling him your "polite child."
Encourage exploration of many things and inquire about all of your child’s activities, not just their "best" subjects. Become interested in whatever interests them. While a minor difference, receiving praise for involvement feels very different to a child than being praised for accomplishment.
Children want to be valued for simply existing, for their thoughts, feelings, actions and personalities, not for their achievements. They want their loved ones to know them for who they are, not for what they do.
Debra Gilbert Rosenberg is the author of The New Mom’s Companion: Care for Yourself While You Care for Your Newborn, and Motherhood Without Guilt: Being the Best Mother You Can Be and Feeling Great About It. She is also the mother of three, a licensed clinical social worker and an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology Department at Dominican University in River Forest.