I have been thinking a lot about how quickly a character trait we discern in our child can become a “label”.
Most of us would never intentionally label our children. And yet what about when we tell our daughter that she is a brilliant artist in response to a picture she has drawn? Or when our son overhears us telling a friend that he is shy?
There is a fine line to walk here and nuances to attend to. An important parenting habit I have developed is to reach out to others as I try to make sense of the best way forward.
In this case, I turned to two colleagues whose wisdom and work I admire. I thought I would share their perspectives with you.
Liz Emmett-Mattox of Dream Garden Coaching is a mom, mommy blogger and coach for moms.
If I were to say just one thing about this issue it would be: make the distinction between the person and their behavior (this goes for big people as well as little people.) What we do (good, bad or otherwise) is separate from who we are (always doing our best in my view!)
Making this distinction is a subtle thing- but it can be as simple as shifting from “Jamie is shy” to “Jamie is being shy.” The first way leaves Jamie no room to be anything but shy. The second says that even if she’s being shy right now, this is not an essential property of HER, but something that she’s doing (and could potentially stop doing.) Even when we say things we might not be proud of- we can make this distinction. “You are such a jerk.” is really different from “You are acting like a jerk.” The first is a terminal sentence- there is no escape from one’s jerkiness. But it’s entirely possible that in a cooler moment, someone would agree that they were being a jerk, and now they’d like to apologize.
Meg Akabas of Parenting Solutions is a mother of four and a parenting skills educator working with parents of children up to age 10, individually and in groups, to help them tackle their parenting challenges and be the best parents they can be.
I absolutely agree with Liz that the key is to really pay attention to our words and be careful to describe the action instead of describing the person. I would add that parenting is very much about expectations, and while it’s important to have expectations for our children (otherwise there are no behavioral standards), labeling sets expectations in a way that, in the case of a positive labels puts undue stress on our children to be something they might not be (e.g. “You’re a math genius!”), or, in the case of negative labels, they can become self-fulfilling prophecies (e.g. “He’s not the athletic type.”).
Finally, I think that even when we manage to describe our children’s behavior rather than label them, we often resort to hyperbole, e.g. “You made the best painting I’ve ever seen!” or “Nobody swims as fast as you!” Children are very astute and know when praise is not truthful. You can be positive without exaggerating. Show your children the respect they deserve by giving specific praise that is enthusiastic but honest and you will go a long way to building a trusting relationship with your child.
I think this is great advice. What would you say?