‘Keep on telling me what I am, and that’s what I’ll become’ …so be careful how you describe your children. Try to remember that even very small children understand more than you realize, and absorb ideas from what they over hear.

Overheard and understood. Listen to what family members say about each other. Consider the nicknames, the stories told about each other and the jokes. These are the signs that family members are cast into roles and given labels to match. ‘Oh, he’s the clever one in the family but he’s got no common sense’, ‘my youngest is such a scaredy cat, she’s nervous about absolutely everything!’

Labeling is disabling although it may be true that your child is more fearful than other children, for example, labeling him as ‘fearful’ may make things worse. Labels – good or bad, become a part of the child’s self image. Although a label may start with a germ of truth in it, it quickly acquires its own force. A ‘clumsy’ child becomes apprehensive about picking up something delicate and in a state of nervousness, drops it. More proof that he is clumsy!

Good labels, bad labels, labels in pairs. Parents often label their children by comparing and contrasting them. First children are often ‘nervous and shy’ and their younger siblings ‘outgoing and sociable’. Some labels link the child to another member of the family. ‘You’re just like your father.’ Sometimes the labels are given affectionately but convey equally powerful messages. ‘You’re such a butterfingers!’

Even good can be bad. Positive as well as negative labels have their downside. A child constantly labeled as the ‘responsible one’ in the family, feels he always has to be on his best behavior. His ‘real self’ is both responsible and reckless. Sometimes he feels the desire to break out and be irresponsible but the label inhibits him. He may also fear that his parents only like the responsible boy and if they see the ‘real boy’ they won’t like it or him.

Mixed messages. A label may fulfill a need of the parents. Sometimes an apparently negative label conveys a mixed message. The parents of an ‘urban terrorist’ may be secretly proud of his energy and recklessness. A ‘fearful’ child calls out strong nurturing instincts. He looks to his parents for help. Ask yourself if you like having your son turn to you for reassurance. If so, try to wean him away from his reliance on you and help him stand on his own two feet!


By Claudia M. Mueller, Ph.D., and Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

While children are often commended for good grades and high test scores, new research illustrates that complimenting children for their intelligence and academic performance may lead them to believe that good test scores and high grades are more important than learning and mastering something new. While lauding a child’s scholastic aptitude is intended to boost their academic performance, it leaves them ill-prepared for coping with setbacks, according to research.

Psychologists Claudia M. Mueller, Ph.D., and Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., of Columbia University conducted six studies of 412 fifth-graders in which they compared the goals and achievement behaviors of children praised for intelligence with those praised for effort/hard work under conditions of failure as well as success. Through their studies, the psychologists demonstrated that commending children for their intelligence after good performance might backfire by making them highly performance-oriented and thus extremely vulnerable to the effects of subsequent setbacks. On the other hand, children who are commended for their effort concentrate on learning goals and strategies for achievement. The researchers also observed that children who were commended for their ability when they were successful learned to believe that intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot be developed or improved.

The children who were explicitly commended after their successes were the ones who blamed poor performances on their own lack of intelligence. However, when children praised for their hard work performed poorly, they blamed their lack of success on poor effort and demonstrated a clear determination to learn strategies that would enhance subsequent performances.

Virtually all of the findings were similar not only for boys and girls but also among children from several different ethnic groups in rural and urban communities. In addition, the differing effects resulting from praise for effort and praise for ability were unrelated to children’s ability, for children with low test scores were equally likely to stress performance goals at the expense of mastery goals as children with high scores.

The authors suggest that when students succeed, attention and approval should be directed at their effort and hard work. Children should be praised for how they do their work rather than for the final product or their ability, the researchers say.

Reference: “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance” by Claudia M. Mueller, Ph.D., and Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 1.

Ways to free children from playing roles:

1. Look for opportunities to give a child a new picture of herself. Not only can undoing a label bring about better behavior, it’s good for your child’s confidence and self-image. A child who is labeled is often reminded of how ‘true’ the label is. Parents can help undo the insidious effects of labeling by recalling the occasions when the label wasn’t correct. If your child says, ‘I can’t get up by myself in the morning!’ remind him that on holiday or at his friend’s house, he gets up by himself without any problem at all!
2. Put a child in a situation where he can see himself differently.
3. Let a child overhear you say something positive about him.
4. Model the behavior you’d like to see. Set a good example. Be a role model for your children but don’t make it obvious you are setting yourself up as an example.
5. Be a storehouse for your child’s special moments.
6. State your feelings and/or expectations.

Source based on the book, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber and Mazlish

Your children are not your children:
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot
visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

© Kahlil Gibran, 1923, 1973.
The Prophet, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1973