Beware of pigeon-holing your children

Families - September 18th, 1992

by Teresa Cowan

Our Aunt Gerda was a bit of a trouble-maker, the black sheep in the family. She never married, trav­eled to far off and exotic places and took on non-traditional jobs for a woman. As if not to disappoint her peers and critics, she remained faithful to her reputation for her entire life.

Had she been born 30 years later, she might have been pegged as independent or spunky. Her biogra­phy might even have read like a Dewar’s advertise­ment in National Geographic.

What lurks behind our impulse to pigeon-hole our loved ones into rigidly set roles? From the moment an infant lands in the bassinet, he’s marked and clas­sified: a good sleeper vs. a bad sleeper, active as op­posed to calm, or just like Uncle Theo. Let’s face it. Humans understand things better if they are labeled and categorized, and parents are particularly prone to it.

However, our rationale for labeling can have ei­ther a negative or positive effect on our children and the dynamics of our family life. What caregivers must avoid at all costs is negative labeling, constantly re­ferring to a child as stupid or sloppy, or singling out one child as the bad or difficult one. Negative label­ing does not eliminate whatever irks you about a child; it perpetuates the whole program.

Of course, labeling is not always negative. Never­theless, even positive labeling can prove restrictive, especially those which result from a parent’s impulse to compare siblings. We are all familiar with the classic comparison between the bookworm and the jock; the princess and the smart one.

But have we ever stopped to think that the book­worm might equally revel in an afternoon of frolick­ing in the park? Although it is difficult not to cast our children into molds, perhaps we can provide the op­portunity and encouragement to our kids to break free.

What other factors lie behind our insatiable urge to classify our kids? Sometimes our own past can be a revelation. For instance, being the smallest kid on the block, coupled with living on a busy intersection, drove me into my parents’ over-protective arms.

To this day, I still do not ride a bike or drive a car. I am not one to take risks. If my kids do not jump head-first into a new activity, I’m anxious that they will be like me. However, it is important that parents recognize their own preconceptions or fantasies. Re­ality needs to support the label. In other words, don’t turn your child into something he isn’t.

Since excessive labeling, be it positive or negative, can be constricting for a child, how does one tackle the topic of criticism?

According to the experts, it is best to criticize the act or behavior as opposed to the child. It’s one thing to tell a child to tidy up and quite another to say, “You’re a slob.” Don’t make it personal and the of­fender won’t take it personally.

Also, since our own negative attitudes toward a child can be based on our past, our own birth rank, even conflicting personalities, it is wise to rephrase the type of vocabulary we use in reference to a child.

For example, a mother who is quite gregarious may label a quite different child as shy and with­drawn. By rephrasing her view to observant and quiet, she applies a more innocuous label which can perhaps eliminate her frustrations and foster her child’s development in a more beneficial fashion.

In any event, with all types of labeling, it’s best to ask oneself, “Why am I using it and is it necessary? Am I projecting my own fears and frustrations onto my kids? How will this label affect family dynamics now and in the future?” With a new school year under way, let’s wipe the slate clean.