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Words Really Do Matter: How Negative Labels Can Hurt Kids

by Camp Canyon on July 31, 2012

The other night, T was playing “Spaceman Spiff.” Nope, it’s not a video game; it’s something he picked up from his obsession with Calvin & Hobbes. It’s an activity best enjoyed by donning a huge backpack (jet pack), bike helmet (space helmet), and adult-sized lab goggles (for x-ray vision), and requires wild dashing around the house, and making PYOOOOO! noises, which, of course, is the sound the jet pack makes as it propels you into the stratosphere.

Negative Labels

Thinking of and referring to our kids in more positive terms can help us be better parents and raise more self-confident children.

Anyhow, he had lugged his old car seat into the center of the living room and was just about to squeeze into it when I exclaimed, “Hey! Don’t sit in that! That’s baby sister’s new car seat. You’re much too heavy for it now and you might break it!”

It wasn’t one of my finer moments. I was sleepy, muscle-weary, and my head was throbbing. Spaceman Spiff’s loud and crazy antics were not amusing.

Shoulders sagging, T plopped down next to the car seat and gave me a wounded look. “But Mommmm, it’s my space shuttle and I’m using my CREATIVITY!”

I was exasperated but I stood corrected. He was right. What I had interpreted as loud and obnoxious behavior was actually something quite endearing:  He was playing make-believe! Who was I to squash his imagination?

This moment was a turning point for me. The fog parted and I began to realize that many of T’s “annoying” behaviors were actually outward expressions of some very admirable personality traits.

The Importance of Labels

In the book Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, the author talks about the importance of labels, or how we think of and refer to our children. (Yes, even if we just *think* the labels without verbalizing them, they still affect how we treat our kids.) Such labels can have a lasting impact on a) how we parent and b) how our children ultimately view themselves. Labels can even have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

According to Kurcinka, all of the negative labels have positive counterpoints. It’s all just a matter of finding the potential in the “misbehavior” and reframing it in a positive way.

Taking the author’s advice, I made a list of T’s most “tiresome” habits and traits. And then I put a positive spin on them.

Old Negative Labels: New Positive Labels:
Needy Connected
Fidgety Energetic, active
Talks too much Communicative, conversational, thinks out loud
Asks too many questions Curious
Loud Enthusiastic, animated
Impatient Eager
Always in the middle of everything Bold, outgoing, confident
Dislikes playing alone Prefers the company of others
Distractible Perceptive
Relentless Persistent
Doesn’t listen Focuses on task at hand
Talks to strangers Friendly, makes others feel at ease

I was astonished. This exercise gave me hope. The positive labels were enlightening—my little T is an extra, extraordinary person! I haven’t completely botched him up yet! What a relief.

Now that I better understand the impetus behind T’s behaviors, I just need to figure out ways to work WITH these traits. Thankfully, the simple act of positive reframing will make this endeavor a little easier. According to Kurcinka, “Researchers have found that when we hold positive thoughts, it changes *our* behavior. We are more open, tolerant, and creative, and as a result, we smile more, give more information, and are more patient.”

Words Matter

Words really do make a difference. I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve told T things like, “You ask a lot of questions. You’re very curious about how things work.” And I’ve heard him parrot it back to my husband: “I’m curious and I like to ask lots of questions. It’s how I learn new things.”

I am giddy about how this is unfolding. T now has a way to positively describe his impulses, and he can feel GOOD about them, too! Kurcinka says, “It’s easy for a child to build a healthy sense of self-esteem when the words used to describe him are ones like ‘creative,’ ‘curious,’ and ‘zestful.’ Words that create positive images wrap our kids in a protective armor, giving them the strength they need to make the behavior changes that actually turn the inappropriate behavior into acceptable actions. In other words, kids who like themselves, behave themselves.”

What Others Say

Someone once told me they thought that T could be perceived as “bratty.” I was crestfallen. “Bratty”? Really? That hurts. I couldn’t help but feel insulted for my son as well as for myself.

But I’ll take this tip from Kurcinka: “Don’t let others intimidate you with hurtful labels. Teach them to use words that reflect your child’s potential by using them yourself. You don’t even have to argue with them. Merely reflect their thoughts in more positive terms.”

Here’s what I might say the next time someone refers to him as “bratty”:

“He is pretty goal-oriented and motivated to get what he wants, isn’t he? Let’s see how we can help him succeed.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” What do you think? Do labels have an impact on our children? Or on the way we parent?

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