Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Guest Post: Are You Inadvertently Shaping Your Child's Future with Labels?

Today’s guest post is by Rachel Cherry. She discusses how parents may inadvertently induce their children to create what I call a false self or persona - a recurrent theme of this blog - by verbally pinning labels on them. These labels or pet names are sometimes just meant to be "cute," but, depending on other things that parents may say or do and the entire social environment of the familymay take on added meanings for the child and set up behavioral expectations for them. When this occurs, it forces them to try and hide their true nature, preventing what experiential therapists refer to as self-actualization

Labeling people is quite common in the world we live in. While many of the names that we call each other have respectful undertones or are shrouded in warmth and concern for  the other person, others are used as digs at a person and are clearly derogatory. When it comes to parents and children, such names can affect childhood development when the actions of the parent reinforce any behavior of the child that is consistent with the label. While most parents do not intentionally try to mentally scar a child in such a fashion, their behavior in a variety of contexts has the potential to solidify certain beliefs children begin to form about themselves and about how they are supposed to behave in various social situations.

There are two parts to any given individual's personality: outward demeanor and inner nature. Your demeanor is how you act around others, and this can be contradictory to how you are truly feeling inside. The demeanor aspect of your self-image is usually centered around how you want people to view you, and it can sometimes completely overwhelm your true, private personality. Inner nature is how you truly think and feel inside. For instance, someone's demeanor may outwardly be cold and calculating - as seen in some company CEOs for example - but his or her nature could secretly be nurturing and caring towards friends and family. Many people feel vulnerable whenever they show their true nature.

Labels and name calling whether good or bad can, when reinforced by certain actions by the parent, alter children’s perception of what sort of demeanor they believe they are supposed to present to the outside world. The child's outward behavior then assumes the qualities inherent in whatever the name signifies to them. Instead of being proud of their own true nature, the child may believe that the outward perception of others is the most important indicator of their validity as a person - especially if the actions of the parent strengthen that belief.

Reinforcing Demeanors:  When someone calls a child a "little princess" or "little prince," he or she could take it as a sign of affection. After all, what child doesn't want to be a part of royalty? However, when parents reinforce negative aspects of that label with actions such as providing various lavish gifts and succumbing to every whim and demand of the child, the child could begin to form a mental correlation between being thought of as royalty by the parents and demanding everything he or she wants. This may easily create a sense of entitlement that children can easily take with them as they develop into adults and interact with outsiders.

Family Sarcasm: Creating an altered persona of the child can be unintentional when the parents think of a label they apply to their child as mere humor. This could inadvertently provide a framework by which a child internalizes the label in a negative way. If jokes go too far, the parents may simply be unaware of how much damage they are truly doing. Taking a jocular stance concerning a child's shortcomings is quite common, but it could create for the child a like-minded negative demeanor as he or she begins to live up to the expectations implied by the comment. For example, jokingly pointing out the failures of a child while sarcastically calling him or her a "loser" could not only make the child feel worse, but it could also create the idea in the child that he or she will always be a failure.

Ignoring Aspects of a Child’s Behavior That May be Related to a Label:  Interestingly, not addressing certain behaviors while using labels can be just as deleterious to the child’s self-image as the labeling itself. If a parent ignores certain of the child’s related behaviors, the child may assume that those behaviors are justified as being part of what the label suggests. While it may be cute to watch a young child plot and scheme in order to get his or her own way in regards to minor situations, if the parents starts to call the child an “evil genius,” the behavior could easily develop into a demeanor for the child that is not so cute in other contexts.

Tone of voice is also important. If the parent uses a positive tone while labeling a child as a "little genius," the child could assume that this behavior is not only acceptable but expected. It could turn into something more elaborate as he or she develops into an adult. Instead of that cute little evil genius plotting to get a cookie, you could end up with a child who winds up spending a great deal of time behind bars.

Labels are Not Always Negative:  Not all labels have to produce negativity in a child. For example, when you call your child a "tough cookie" when he or she doesn't cry or otherwise expresses emotions when injured, it could help the child develop a sense of inner strength. As we all know, despite your best efforts to prevent your child from being injured, accidents frequently happen with the young. Children take their cues on how to react to those situations from the parents’ behavior. Most young children will wait to see the parents' response to an injury before reacting themselves. If you treat the situation light-heartedly, so will the child. This "tough cookie" demeanor could be beneficial throughout the child's life as he or she learns the value of inner toughness and self-reliance.

Labels in and of themselves do not usually create a child's entire demeanor. It is the actions of the parents and others that reinforce their concept of how to behave in interpersonal situations. If this behavior continues to be reinforced by the parents, the child's demeanor could overwhelm his or her true nature and reduce the child’s capacity to discover his or her true inner-self. If the child is constantly putting on a show for everyone by trying to be whatever he or she thinks others want, then there is less of a chance for the child to develop his or her potential. Your behavior as a parent is key to your child's development, and it is wise to monitor yourself closely when applying any label to your child.

Rachael Cherry is a wife, mother, and writer who is passionate about helping connect families in need with high quality caregivers. She has taken that passion and put it to work through NannyPro, a respected online nanny referral service. Learn more by visiting @NannyPro on Twitter.


  1. Dr. Allen,

    Psychiatric diagnoses are "labels" that have a profound negative impact - often creating a false sense of hopelessness. Paula Caplan, PhD sheds some light on this subject:

    I don't think the public is aware of how these psychiatric diagnoses are determined. Sami Timimi, MD explains:


  2. ....and that's the way the cookie crumbles.

    "..when you call your child a "tough cookie" when he or she doesn't cry or otherwise expresses emotions when injured, it could help the child develop a sense of inner strength."

    Nope. The child has learned that the expression of emotions upsets the parents and has become an 'other caretaker' and has picked up on intrapsychic issues in the family dynamic. Kid is cooking an anxiety disorder.


    1. It might do what you suggest, or it might do what the guest poster says. It all depends on the entire family social context in which the label is applied, which is part of the point of the post.

      For example, the family could encourage the expression of emotion in other contexts, like crying at a funeral for example, even for "tough cookies" who don't fall apart at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, as you say, they might discourage ANY display of emotion even when appropriate.

      "Emotional constipation" or "emotional diarrhea," so to speak, can be equally problematic.

  3. Isn't it interesting that the consistency of fecal matter is linked to how emotions are expressed? When that level of disrespect and contempt for the feeling functions loses its currency, perhaps adults will raise children and not Marines.