Avoid labelling your child

It’s something most parents are guilty of, at least occasionally: sorting our children into tidy categories. Nathan is the athletic one. Olivia is artistic. Michael is shy. Katherine is a picky eater. These traits are often apparent from a very young age and parents can’t help but notice patterns in behaviour or certain talents, likes or dislikes. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

“It’s tricky – the grey area between labelling and validating,” says Alex Russell, a clinical psychologist in Toronto and author of Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement. “It’s important for parents to notice things about their kids, about who they are. It helps confirm the child’s identity and validates their sense of self. And that’s a critical parenting function.”

Often, however, we hone in like. “As parents, we can be blinded either by our own fears or our wishes for our children. So we end up noticing certain things and completely missing others.” When what we notice is something negative, a child being anxious for example, it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more Johnny hears that about himself, the more it becomes part of his identity. Parents can end up perpetuating the behaviour they didn’t like in the first place. If you’ve labelled your child as disorganized or lazy, and you are constantly stepping in to help, it creates a learned helplessness; your child is never going to learn how to become organized if you are always reminding him to do his homework or find his lost library books.

On the flipside, a positive label, like being athletic or musical, can be the result of a parent’s own desire, and can be equally confining… especially if the child is not as passionate about sports or music as the parent is. “We need to see our children for who they are, not who we want them to be.”

Observing our children is a lot more complicated than it sounds, says Alex. “What we notice is greatly driven by our own expectations – they powerfully narrow the scope of our focus. If you are not careful, you’ll only ever see what you expect or fear to see. Parents have to make a deliberate effort to notice what they weren’t expecting. Every child changes as he or she grows and matures. Parents must always be open to new possibilities.

The power of suggestion

  • If someone labels you as “smart,” are you more likely to be successful? Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, decided to find out. Over 10 years, Carol conducted a series of experiments on more than 400 fifth graders in New York City. The results were staggering.
  • In a nutshell, the experiment went something like this: the children were given a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of easy puzzles. Half the kids were told they did well because they were smart; the other half were told their success was due to hard work. In subsequent tests (which were much more difficult) those who had initially been told they were smart got more easily frustrated, took fewer risks and blamed their failure on the assumption that maybe they weren’t that smart after all. The ones who were praised for their effort attempted more difficult puzzles, worked more diligently and enjoyed the challenge more.
  • The upshot? People who think they can do better through hard work and perseverance tend to be more successful than those who feel like their talent and intelligence level are written in stone. Carol has since written a book called Mindset, in which she talks about the idea of a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset. People with fixed mindsets think success has a lot to do with innate talent and very little to do with effort. Those with growth mindsets believe their abilities can be greatly improved through dedication and hard work. They persevere and are resilient. And they are almost always more successful than their fixed-minded peers.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

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