Labeling and categorizing is a natural process that our brains use to consolidate information. We have to actively try not to put things into categories. Our brains make it almost impossible not to prejudge people, scenarios, materials, foods, places, etc. Yet when we apply these labels to people, we can often get caught up in hurtful assumptions. We have to decide that we want to see people for all of who they are, and actively engage that part of the brain, instead of the part that just finds it easier to lump people into categories.

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We even apply these labels to the people we are closest to, sometimes impacting our ability to understand them and connect with them. For our children, labels can have a major impact on the development of  intrinsic motivation and identity formation. I think many people know that using labels such as “you’re a bad kid” or “you are so annoying” or “you are so spoiled,” typically don’t have a positive influence on a child’s sense of well-being. But how can seemingly positive labels impact a child’s feelings of belonging, identity and the development of intrinsic motivation?

When we say something like “you’re so musical” or “you’re so athletic” or “you’re so creative,” children internalize these messages. You may be thinking that’s not a bad thing, but children have yet to develop a sense-of-self. This once carefree child hear’s the message “you’re so musical,” brimming with pride and admiration, they are compelled to become more musical. Not because they truly love music but because they now see this characteristic of “musical” as something that can garner a lot of acceptance and approval from the adults in her life. Ultimately, being “musical” = being loved.

When someone makes an assumption about me that I do not feel fits, my adult mind takes that information, processes it and sees if it fits with my own feelings about myself. If I manage to throw a piece of paper in a trash bin, and then my co-worker says “you’re so athletic,” I know that they only have the limited knowledge of my paper throwing skills. I am amused by their incorrect assumption and I move on. But a child doesn’t have that sense of self. They take their cues a lot from the people in their lives, that’s why the messages should be less about labeling and more about encouraging: “you seem so happy when you are creating something” or “wow, you ran so fast, you must be practicing a lot” or “music seems to put you in a peaceful mood, have you noticed that?” Even better, ask them how these activities make them feel before offering your opinion on their experience. That way you can can take a child-led approach to encouraging new skills and interests by supporting their perspective of the experience, instead of unknowingly influencing it.

I think this tendency to offer labels as encouragement may contribute to the dissonance of adolescence. Children have spent years trying to live up to our ideals. Then in their teens, they are given new labels, that are different and often not acceptable to their parents. Their friends labels become more important and the struggle to conform with either group begins. Never the while, considering their own thoughts and feelings, just being torn between the two influential parties in their life. Then sometime between 25 to 60, we start the journey of self-discovery. What do I enjoy? What are my inner strengths? How does that person make me feel? How does this job make me feel? How do these friends make me feel? What labels don’t actually “fit”?

As a child, I was given the message that I am an extreme extrovert with an insatiable thirst for attention and an inability to be alone. Turns out, I am an introvert, who hates attention and gets overwhelmed by too much “people” time. All that time, I was actually just an anxious child trying to hide my feelings because I knew that being happy was ok, but being sad, ungrateful, angry, frustrated and rude, was not ok. My social anxiety came off as a thirst for attention, when really, I was probably just looking for someone to connect with so I could feel grounded.

Why don’t we just skip all that confusion and pain and let children be themselves from the start? Learn to listen to their own inner thoughts and feelings. Two things are necessary when trying to raise a child with authenticity; you must model authenticity, but you must also allow authenticity, even when it may not look at all like the child you thought you would get. Your child, is the child you need, and you are the only person who is able to give them the love and acceptance that they need to grow into their authentic selves.

*When we plant a tree, we don’t try to tell it what kind of tree to be or how to grow. We instead accept it and take care of it, and marvel in it’s unique beauty. Our children deserve the same acceptance.

*Paraphrased from unknown

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