“She’s the artistic one”: Why you shouldn’t label your kids

Why you shouldn't label your kids
I wrote an awesome blog post I couldn’t wait to publish. It was one of those posts where all the words just flowed and I truly felt I had something meaningful to share with you all. Except you won’t get to read a single word because I deleted it.

“Can you read this post and tell me if I’m labeling him too much?” I asked my husband. Even before he answered, I knew in my gut that the post would classify my toddler immediately. I won’t say what I had labeled my toddler (I deleted it for a reason!), but you can use any trait adults often label kids with: outgoing/funny/smart/shy/athletic/artistic/likes math/likes words/(fill in the blank).

Notice that the adjectives I mentioned above (outgoing/funny/etc) aren’t necessarily negative. In fact we often discuss kids in a positive light when we apply labels: “Jane is the artistic one in the family” is usually said to pay a compliment to Jane’s extraordinary artistic talent. How can that possibly be bad for Jane? Let’s take a look…

While Jane may feel pride for being singled out as the artistic one, she’s also likely to narrow down her passions or interests to only the arts, even if other hobbies seem interesting. If she has a sibling who is “the athletic one,” this will further cement her views that she ought to stick to arts since clearly she’s the artistic one while her brother is the athletic one. Similarly, if someone is praised for doing well in English and literature, he may convince himself that he’s terrible with math and numbers. (For some unfortunate reason we divide math and literature and that apparently you can’t be both. I know I fell for this.)

Or let’s say a little girl is labeled as shy. When she doesn’t immediately say “hi” to every stranger in the world, her parents excuse their daughter, “Oh, she’s shy.” Never mind that stranger anxiety is 100% normal and even healthy. So now this little girl grows up thinking she’s the shy one, and should there be an opportunity for her to be more outspoken, she may hesitate a bit.

So back to writing the blog post that branded my toddler too much. And just to make it really obscure, let’s pretend I had labeled him as “blue.” From what I’ve observed, he does seem to show tendencies of being blue as opposed to being green. But there’s a chance that labeling him as blue would change how I act towards and think about him; rather than letting him be, I’ll base my actions and thoughts on these earlier observations. If his own mom already assumes he’s blue, there’s less chance for my toddler to feel free to exhibit whatever characteristics he may actually be.

Or what if I had published that post and family and friends who read this blog may nod their heads and agree, “Yes… LO probably is blue instead of green.” Now, not only does his mom think he’s blue, but people he knows may subconsciously see him as blue and nothing else, already assuming these traits are set in stone.

Perhaps the biggest reason I clicked “delete” instead of “publish” is that I shouldn’t define who he is. My toddler will. And he needs the freedom to explore whatever interests and traits he may have, unhindered by any labels adults place on him. Let him be outgoing, funny, smart, shy, athletic, and artistic. Let him like numbers and words. Let him be all that, some, or none of that. But that’s for him to decide through the course of his life, preferably not when he’s two years old.

And can we even label our kids so absolutely? I’ve tried to determine where he falls on certain spectrum to find that he doesn’t always fall so neatly within the categories. He can be quite serious and downright funny. He easily says “hi” to some strangers and hides behind me with others. He can be up to no good and obey every instruction. He is one of the easiest and most difficult kids I’ve ever met.

Let kids be. They have their whole life to figure out who they are and what they like. I know I did—despite scoring terribly in math classes from having convinced myself that I just wasn’t good at the subject, I now enjoy crunching numbers and handling finances. And yes, while still being able to write.

Do you find yourself labeling kids? Do you steer your views and comments based on how you perceive your kids? Have you grown up with a label, and how has it affected you?

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15 thoughts on ““She’s the artistic one”: Why you shouldn’t label your kids

  1. This is so good to remember. I know that I am guilty of saying things like, “Emilia is so good at art.” It’s a tough balance sometimes, praising the good things, but not pigeonholing into “you should concentrate on this because you are awesome.” I think it gets harder as they get older, too, and they feed off that praise so hard-core. I guess I try to compensate by having talks about how she can do whatever she wants to do. This parenting thing never gets any easier!

  2. Such a thought-provoking post! It is sometimes challenging to find other words to use when “labeling” your child. This is something I need to work on ASAP. Being a new mom (although mine is almost a year old) there are so many things to think about while you are raising your child; communication is just as important as any other topic.

    You are absolutely right, it’s up my son to define who he is!

  3. My son was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and I have really been thinking about not ever telling him. I don’t want him thinking that because he has autism, that he is limited in what he wants to do. There is a flip side, if I don’t label him and he fails at things due to his diagnosis, would it be better if he knew he has autism? Something I am still thinking about and working through.

  4. Oh I totally think about that a lot. My daughter loves to dress up and put on necklaces and wear tutus. I always comment on how beautiful and pretty she is and then I think…Gasp…I don’t want her to always associate beautiful with the way one looks or dresses…uh oh.
    But as far as labeling her under a specific category, yes, she is musically inclined, and active. BUT I hope that she can enjoy it all and figure out for herself what she likes. We’ll see where she ends up! : )

  5. This started for me when my youngest was only a day old “oh his brother is the brains and he’s going to be the braun” … Yeah he’s a big boy and he might grow up to be a big muscular man…but guess what people, he can be smart too! and my skinny, quick-witted (smart-mouthed *ahem*) 2 year old may be on the wrestling team! I kinda talked about the same thing in my post My Baby is Not Fat! but I like how you’ve approached the idea from a toddler age. I’ve realized I even label my toddler in the things I buy him (he loves puzzles and is good at them so I constantly suggest we buy a new puzzle instead of just saying ok, what do you want as a toy?)
    Thanks for a great post!

  6. My husband just preached a sermon on not labeling people yesterday. I was really convicted because it’s SO HARD not to do. Whether we realize it or not we are constantly labeling everyone. I think the point is purposefully looking beyond the labels we give, to the person behind the label. And that’s just what you did by deleting the post. Sure, there was definitely a label you’d given your son but you looked beyond that label and saw how broadcasting it could affect him as a person. Good for you.

    Now what to do when others label our kids. I’ve had people tell me my daughter is “very active for a girl.” Not quite sure what to do with that…

  7. I’ve never thought of the consequences of simple praise-like labels like you wrote before. I would never label negatively, but now I need to rethink labeling positively. Btw, you may have had a great post that you deleted, but I think this one turned out better.

  8. Wow, you make a really good point here. As our babies grow and develop personalities, I think all parents are curious to see who they will be, but you’re right that we need to be mindful of the impact we can have (both positively and negatively) on shaping their personalities.
    I’ve recently noticed myself referring to Charlotte as silly, but then I also wonder if she’s only silly because she’s learned from me to goof around and ham it up a bit?

  9. Wow, what an intriguing post. My daughter just turned one and I am constantly thinking about how I talk to her. But it really isn’t that easy. Words do slip out. I also want to encourage her in what she is doing and then often use labels without realizing it.
    Being the mom of a high need baby, I sometimes have to use that label in certain situations. But mostly I try to avoid using even that label. I also don’t plan on telling her until she is grown up and has developed her own sense of herself. And even then I plan to mostly talk about the positive aspects. I just don’t want her to be influenced by any negativity or think that we raised her differently because of it.

    • Your comment reminds me of the one The Mighty Quinn above posted about her son with ASD. She was wondering too whether to even tell him or not. This is an area that I’ve never even considered, and like I told Quinn’s mom, I’d be interested to hear more thoughts on this. It seems like you guys are in agreement that telling them comes later in life, if at all.

      You said it well: highlight the positives. We often hear about the challenges of kids who don’t follow the norm, but you hardly hear about the positives *because* of their unique case.
      Thanks for chiming in with your own experience and thoughts on this topic!

  10. This is such a great post and something that I don’t think is addressed often enough. I know that I have definitely been guilty of doing this on occasion and this has reminded me how damaging it can really be! I was labeled as shy by my mother, family, friends and I do believe that it only made me live up to that expectation. I will vow to let me son decide who he is and now have me do it for him!

  11. I think that it can be handled, if we say things like: “You are feeling energetic today,” or “ARe you feeling shy?” So, labeling certain actions or feelings as shy or energecti/active (not hyperactive) or particular. I know that my DH was labeled a bit “picky,” because there are certain materials that he hates and won’t wear. No, he is not autistic, but if he grew up here in America, would have probably been labeled as such. Now, labels get funded in school, treated by professionals who don’t want to take the time to really get to know your child — so a set of labels can describe your child instead. If you say: “oh, my child is feeling shy today,” then you can admit the condition without it being permanent. that is, the shyness is temporary. When Azaan, my 4mo lo was “fussy,” he was labeled “High Needs,” which is better than fussy, but has the same result. Why can’t he jst be a kid. And, the thing is that this label becomes more than the person. It tends to overshadow any other characteristic that your child might exhibit. Lables are better than any adhesive when it comes to sticking to a person. “learning Disabled,” followed my adult son until he got into the military and he had to work hard to overcome it. Besides, labels do tend to color whatever you do. If a baby is labeled “high needs,” when she/he wants attention, it is already perceived as being over the top. When your wonderful artistic child picks around on the piano keys, she is “making up a song,” instead of just playing a bit. And, yes, self fulfilling prophesies abound. I know children who were labeled “adhd,” or “clinically depressed,” just because of mothers and school perceptions. The child became the label. It was so discouraging. Why can’t we let people be who they want to be no matter the characteristics they exhibit??? It is just one single aspect of the whole.

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