Why We Shouldn’t Label Children

Mommy Crusader Being a Mommy, Parenting, School, Sunday Reflection 4 Comments

What is the value of a life? How can we tell, by looking at scores or features, what someone will do in life? How much do we really need to categorize people to make sense of the world? There’s been so much labeling of people – whether because of choices, behaviors, intelligence, or body make up. This labeling is damaging to our society, and to each other. We’ve even started labeling our children. Here are some reasons why we shouldn’t label children.

Reason 1: Labeling begets restrictions

No matter which way we label our children – whether average, above average, or below – that label carries with it a specific set of expectations. As we all know, children live up to the expectations we hold for them. If we have decided to label a child as below average, then below average is all that child will expect of herself.  She will already feel like she cannot keep up, and so will get farther and farther behind.  Likewise, if a child is told he cannot fail, but must be the top of the class, then he will assign his entire value of himself to being in the top of the class to the exclusion or even sacrifice of other beneficial (but not graded) activity. He will miss out on learning from a different source – life. Both children will stop growing, because that is what is expected of them. They will fulfill the label they have been given.

Reason 2: Who knows what the future holds

How many of us are really doing what we thought we’d be doing in elementary or high school? I’m not even doing what I’d thought I’d be doing when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from college. My life is very different from what I thought it would be. Who’s to say that’s not what our children will experience.

That underachieving child in the corner might become the next Bill Gates. No one knows what the future will hold for any of these children we are currently educating. We don’t even really know what the job market will be like when this year’s batch of Kindergarteners graduates from high school. How much has the world changed since we graduated?  How much has the economy, job market, and opportunities become different from when we were finishing high school?  Who’s to say that the quiet child in the middle row, who just barely slides by, doesn’t end world hunger? We just don’t know. Trying to file children into certain molds, even when they don’t fit, doesn’t help them become, or find out, who they are.

Reason 3: Every child, every person, is uniquely different and uniquely gifted

When we set out to label children, it’s to make “knowing” how to educate them en masse more easy and safe. Labeling them puts them all in nice neat cubbies, and prescribes blanket best practices for those in each cubby. It leaves little room for individualization beyond what is the standard method for “educating” that type of child. It also diminishes the gifts each child has that may or may not be measurable on a test.

So, instead of trying to label, categorize, and mass diagnose each group of children we interact with, wouldn’t it be better to get to know them? Find out their strengths and their weaknesses. Help them to become the best type of person they can become. Allow them to be themselves – even if it doesn’t fit into a preset subgroup.

For example, I struggled with spelling since I could write. I have dysgraphia, and it affects my ability to memorize and understand words. On the plus side, I have great reading comprehension. I didn’t find out about this problem until I had graduated high school and almost through my generals in college. When I was in fourth grade, my class had a required spelling bee every week. Guess who was the first one out, no matter how many hours she studied?  That’s right, me. I was told I didn’t study enough, work hard enough, try enough to learn these “easy” words. So, after a while I listened to those labels, and I stopped trying hard, stopped working hard, and stopped studying my spelling lists. If someone, somewhere would have noticed that I did well in all the other academic disciplines, and thought to see why spelling was so difficult – maybe that part of my life would have been different.  But, the label “poor speller” was in place, so I lived up to it. Do we want to do the same to our children?

What if we stopped trying to fracture and divide groups of children, or people? What if, instead, we saw everyone for who they are – a unique person, who fits into the category of “person”. And what if we gave each person the respect and opportunities being a person entails. What if we did everything we could to make sure all the doors stay open to every child? Not in a weird utopian kind of way, but in a more practical understand who each child is kind of way?

It gets complex to know many people, and labeling saves us from having to do that. But, should we rely on that crutch when the children who depend on us for their education are affected? What do you think?

Comments 4

  1. adrianscrazylife

    I see your point, but I do have one issue with it. Sometimes, I think a label can be helpful because it causes you to adjust your expectation to what is reasonable for that child. That’s what has always bothered me about having my boys with ADHD. If a child has downs syndrome or something, there is a visible and immediate sign and you automatically know that the child may not be capable of the same understanding and abilities as other children, but with many kids with ADHD and/or Aspergers, there often isn’t a visible difference and people expect them to behave on the same level with the other children, which often isn’t possible for them. However, if you know they have an ADHD or Aspergers challenge, you know to cut them a little slack and give them a little more time, or a little more instruction for a task. I get what you’re saying, but when you are dealing with a large group of kids and you don’t have time to learn each one’s individual problems, it is a bit of shorthand that might explain why a kid is behaving oddly or is frequently out of control.

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  2. vegasfoxs

    I think labeling can be good or bad. I think it can be helpful for someone to point out to a child that they are excelling in an area. I do believe that can build confidence and excitement about that specific area and allow the child to further develop his or her talent. As a child I enjoyed drawing, and my enjoyment of it grew as others around me made comments about me being an artist. I took pride in those comments and it made me want to draw more.
    However, I do think telling kids they aren’t good at something works in the same manner to stunt growth, just as you wrote about your experience with spelling. We should do better to express to our children that sometimes things may take us longer to learn than others, but that it is ok and not to give up. That is a good but hard lesson.
    Thank you for your post, I’ll be thinking about it today as I interact with my kids.

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