Consequences of labelling children + how to avoid it

Labels you thoughtlessly give to a child may stick with him and go on to shape his future

distressed boy against blackboard with negative labels | Concept for: Consequences of labelling children

We live in a world that celebrates homogeneity; a world where even if someone shows the slightest deviation from what we perceive as “normal”, we bestow them with a label. Forget diagnostic labels [e.g. autism spectrum etc], the labels that cause the most damage are actually the ones that are derived from casual, momentary observations.

“Oh, but Keshav is quite careless. Don’t give him any responsibilities,” has been a constant refrain in Keshav’s life since the time he was six or seven. His first grade teacher called him careless because he made silly errors when adding numbers; he cleared the first grade but the label stuck. At home, his mum finds him careless and insists on doing every little thing for him [even packing his suitcase when they travel], thereby squashing whatever little sense of autonomy he has. He is 21 now and has toted the ‘careless’ label for so long that he couldn’t care less. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While labelling children, remember that words are potent

When using labels, remember that words are potent. Every label—hyper, lazy, intelligent, dull—carries with it a set of expectations that end up influencing behaviour in the long term.

Kiarah’s mother learnt this the hard way. As a toddler, Kiarah was energetic and paid better attention when she moved. Her kindergarten teachers acknowledged this and ensured there was adequate movement for her in class. When Kiarah got to grade two, school work became more demanding and her teachers wanted her to be at her desk for at least an hour at a stretch. Naturally, she got fidgety. At the end of the school year, her grade tutor wrote in Kiarah’s report : Kiarah is a restless child; she needs to be focussed to perform better .

The school had a tradition of transition meetings before children were moved to the next grade. The intention was that the new set of teachers would be primed about a child’s learning difficulties, if any, to help the child cope better. In Kiarah’s case, her new teachers were told that Kiarah was a fidgety child and they shouldn’t be surprised if she is a cause of distraction in class.

Year after year, this repeated. By the time Kiarah got to middle school, all of her teachers expected nothing but “poor performance” and “restlessness” from her. By then, Kiarah had turned into a rebel. It took many months of counselling and a new supportive school environment, before Kiarah was her happy, enthusiastic self again.

Why do we like labelling children?

We pigeonhole children into categories simply because it makes our life easier. When we call a child “slow” we may very well be insinuating that we believe his future may not be a particularly prospective one and that he may need to make colossal effort to get going in life. On the same lines, calling a child “brilliant” could be suggesting that the child has a promising life ahead. What we don’t realise is that these labels are transitory and can go out of date. A diffident child can grow into a confident adult. A gregarious high schooler can become an introverted adult.

Does this mean we stop using labels altogether?

Understanding the consequences of labelling children is the key. Labels can be empowering and useful in certain settings. For example, when used for diagnostic purposes, or when used to define one’s sexual preferences, etc. In such cases, labels can help us in finding the right support network or community.

However, labels do more harm than good when we base them on casual observations and impose them on another person, especially children. Before we hedge children with the expectations that one-dimensional labels bring, we need to understand that in most circumstances, labels serve little purpose. In situations when a negative label is used persistently, it may result in the child feeling stigmatised.

4 effective ways to avoid labelling children

So how to avoid labelling children and yet address their behavioural problems or recognise their strengths? Here are four suggestions that might help. These suggestions hold true even when we communicate with adults.

1. Describe the state, not the trait

When describing the state, we learn to see each event as an isolated one, independent of the past. For instance, if a child has broken a toy, instead of launching into a diatribe and saying “You are always naughty. You do this all the time”, say “You were naughty today. You broke your brother’s toy. I want you to help him fix it.” Refrain from using the word “always”; instead focus on the present moment. When we use always we are only reinforcing past behaviour.

2. Know the motivation

In most situations, we label children based on what we see and what we hear. Instead, if we took a moment to take the child aside and talk to them about what’s going on, we may understand what their motivation was. Poor behaviour is usually a result of children feeling neglected or bored. When we are around children, it is important we use our hearts and minds as much as we use our ears and eyes.

3. Truth has many versions

In Season two of Master of None on Netflix, there is a scene in where Aziz Ansari remarks to a friend, “It’s like you are describing a colour that I cannot see.” What a profound line! We may be staring at the same picture but while you see the figure of a grey elephant, all I may see is a grey blob. The elephant is your perception, the grey blob is mine.

Remember that the labels we casually toss around are merely projections of our perceptions! The next time you catch yourself labelling children or even adults, remember no label can ever be the absolute truth. Labels are the least effective tools to improve behaviour or trigger motivation. Labelling children as “slow” or “dull” is no motivator for them to try harder.

4. Labels are a tricky terrain

Calling a child “brilliant” can make the child feel pressured to be a top performer all the time, or in some situations, it can tip over to an overestimation of one’s abilities. Instead if you call out the effort, e.g. “I’m proud of how diligently you prepared for your maths test!”, it eases out the pressure.

Shantideva, the 8th century Buddhist monk, beautifully said,

“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

If we can all become  more mindful of how we communicate, we may actually contribute to building a world that is non-judgmental and label-free!

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!


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