What were your labels growing up? Were you the good one, the fat one, the skinny one,
the smart one, the athlete? The one with ADD, the outspoken one, the shy one, the messy
one, the risk-taker? When asked to describe yourself, many of you will use a childhood
label. Maybe you feel like you've been boxed in by labels your whole life.
The upside of certain labels is that they are shorthand to describe a bigger picture. In
conversation, we no longer have to say that someone is inattentive, can't sit still or is
impulsive. Now we call it ADHD. Everyone has a basic idea of what that means.
The problem arises when a label becomes your identity. I am the older of two children. I
was the quiet one, the good one, the sensitive one. Still am. Everyone joked that all it took
was a sideways look to make me cry. My brother is the one who pushed back, the rebel,
the risk-taker (relatively speaking). He talked about buying a motorcycle and joining the
military. (He bought the motorcycle, but did not enlist). One year he had to go to summer
school, not because the subject was so difficult, but because he slacked off. (I could never
let that happen. I was ‘the good one’. Trust me, it's not always a blessing.)
Unfortunately, the bottom line is that when you label children they usually take it to heart
and see themselves as the label. That identity can become deeply ingrained, defining their
place in family and relationships, and how they show up in the world. Children learn how
they are seen by others, without learning who they really are.
Children take their cues from the adults in their life. They trust that those adults are
speaking the truth and they take it seriously. And they carry it for life.
You want your children to have a wonderful life, full of variety, accomplishments, and
satisfying relationships. You tell them they can have, be and do anything. Putting them in
a box with labels creates just the opposite, stunting their emotional growth and keeping
them from uncovering their strengths. Staying in the box keeps them from discovering
what makes them, them.
Some children take the label and use it as an excuse for withdrawing or not applying
I'm such a klutz, I'll never be any good at football. Why bother?
ADD/LD is why I can't do this.
I'm shy, so why put myself in the uncomfortable position of meeting new people?
I'm the screw-up in the family. They don't believe I'll do anything good. If my own family doesn't believe in me, I guess it must be true.
You wouldn't intentionally put your children down or stifle their growth. This can happen if
you use labels. Practice this instead:
1. Observe yourself. Notice when you are using any kind of label.
2. Observe the kids, carefully. Watch for verbal, physical and energetic changes.
3. Notice patterns. Which of your child’s attitudes and behaviors trigger you to use the
4. Change your perspective and words. Remember that words are powerful, and that your
child is doing the best she can (even though it may not seem that way). Respond with an
observation of a specific instance, rather than a generalization (the label).
What does #4 sound like?
Replace You’re such a procrastinator. Why can’t you just get it done?
With You seem to have trouble getting started. What would be helpful right now?
Replace You’re shy.
With I see how uncomfortable you are with people you don’t know well.
If there’s something familiar about these examples, it’s because you’ve seen this technique
before. It’s called acknowledging, or reflecting. You’re describing what you see in a given
moment. There is no judgment, criticism or fixing. There is no labeling, simply a
statement of fact. The key is going from the general to the specific and how you express
When you stop using labels, you let your child out of the box. She is freer to explore
herself and her world, without self-judgment and limiting beliefs.
Fern Weis is a certified life coach who learned that caring and good intentions are not enough in parenting. In fact, they are often the problem! Fern supports parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations, including addiction recovery. She helps parents release guilt, end enabling and confidently prepare their children to thrive through life's challenges. Her articles are featured in Thrive Global, Medium, Motherly, The Teen Mentor, and Bergen County Moms.
Learn more about coaching and class