Humans seem to have a need for labels. We ascribe them to ourselves, usually as a quick way of identifying who and what we are, and we assign them to others, typically as a blanket statement, because we haven’t examined the meaning and depth behind those one-word labels.
Labels can be positive or negative. The problem with labels is they are limiting. Most often we hear a label and apply our own assumptions to them, or we take a label at face value and do not look to the person beyond. This is very common when talking about jobs – you are your job, essentially. You are a Teacher. You are an Accountant. You are a Lawyer.
Lately I have been trying to define, for myself, the label of “mentor.” That was the post I sat down to write, but while I was planning it I discovered other ideas that I felt compelled to explore. Labels are often tossed around without thought (I know I’m guilty of this) and it takes a lot of thought and conscious effort to speak without using labels.
The hidden danger of labels is that if you are told something often enough, it becomes who you are. Our self-worth becomes tied to single-word descriptors that define our boundaries and potential in what we do, the challenges we face, and even the success we might achieve.
Even if it is a positive label, what happens when life and circumstances change? If your child is the “good” kid, what happens when they make a mistake? If your child is “The Artist,” what happens if somebody tells them their art is bad?
Have you ever known someone who spent their whole life working in one particular field and upon retirement, they found themselves tired and unmotivated and they practically just faded away? When you are associated with one specific label your entire life, a change in circumstances (even retirement, which is suppose to be a good thing) can wreck havoc on your image and self-worth
Try some of these strategies to limit applying labels in your family.
Don’t Teach Absolutes
Have you ever taught a small child about occupations? I used to hold up a flashcard and ask “Who is this?”, expecting children to shout answers like “He’s a doctor!” or “She’s a firefighter!” Now, instead, I prefer to ask “What does this person do?” or “What is this person’s job?” It might seem like a very slight difference, but in the latter method we’re attaching specific actions to a person instead of a label. Unlike a label, the actions act as adjectives to attach to the noun, the person, rather than redefining the person as the noun. Otherwise, we are teaching children from birth to use labels, whether we realize it or not.
Your Actions are not Who You Are
Making this distinction is very, very important when it comes to correcting negative behaviour. A child’s self-esteem is a very delicate thing and it is easy for them to accept labels that limit themselves, especially when the label comes from an adult. Labels also slam doors shut, they cause kids, teens, even adults, to shut down and go on the defensive, even if we know our behaviour is not acceptable. The difference between destructive and constructive can be as small, as simple as the difference between “wrong” and “incorrect” or “fail” and “needs improvement”. Saying “you are wrong” creates a wall, saying “it’s incorrect or could use improvement, so why don’t we work together on it?” removes barriers and allows for communication.
Make it a point to challenge the labels you and those around you use. You will probably find that most labels are one-word insults that all of us, kids and adults alike, use casually and without thought. It takes a lot of courage to challenge and call attention to labels, especially around your peers, but it is a good way to make people stop and think. I tend to do this by casually asking “What does that mean?” to the person using it. Essentially, I’m feigning ignorance to try to cause the user to stop and think, to explain the word and why they are using it. This also opens the door for further discussion.
It’s been mentioned before, but it bears repeating that I am a big fan of the “Golden Rule” – treat other people the way you want to be treated. If nothing else, simply ask someone if they would like the label they just applied to be stuck to themselves, it’s usually enough to make them stop and think.
Labels: The Games
There are several different ways you can break the habit of using labels, try several and see what works for your family.
Keep Score: Every time someone (the “catcher”) in your family catches another (the “catchee”) using a label, the catcher get a point. If the catchee can come up with a new or different to get their point across without using a label, they also get a point. Keep track with pennies, candies, stickers, or whatever visual motivator your family would like to use.
Writing Exercises: These is a great activity for a Creative Writing/English Class. Whenever you use a label in writing, you’re missing the opportunity to add description and depth. If you see a label in a student’s writing, highlight it and suggest they elaborate on it. When students are doing their good copies they can have the opportunity to change these, thus improving the descriptive nature of their work.
A quick example – which is more intriguing?
“He was a postman”
“He rolled out of bed, slipping on his well-worn tennis shoes and slinging his mail bag over his shoulder. He let the door latch click softly behind him as he left for work.”
You could also have have a whole class devoted to labels and having students write about a common label that bothers them, and how to say what they want without using labels. Provide examples, have a spirited discussion, and let the kids write!
Labels are easy, simplistic, and create limitations. Whenever you slap a label on something or someone, it stifles potential. By simply being aware we can come up with alternatives.
What labels do you hear today’s kids using? How can we offer an alternative? Please share your thoughts below.
Whenever you label a person, you negate them as a person. A truth I’ve always tried to remain aware and conscious of over the years.
Very good post Sheen!