Google+ Authentic Parenting: Peeling Away the Labels

Monday, March 14, 2011

Peeling Away the Labels

I'm currently reading Shefali Tsabary's book The Conscious Parent (I will do a review when I have reached the end). In the book, Shefali encourages us to accept our children by defining the individual traits we are struggling with. It would look something like: I accept that my daughter has a strong will, I accept that my son is active...
Whereas I'm not arguing that this is a good tool for people who are just easing into conscious or peaceful parenting, as it makes them define what it is exactly that is causing them trouble, I do have some considerations on this tactic and am unsure if it completely harmless.
I fear that the exercise further accentuates the paralysis of labeling children.

I have always refrained from labeling my child as much as possible, so when people ask me "how" she is, or what she is like, I struggle to find an answer.

My daughter is so many things - and their opposite, and she has yet to become so many other. None of her character traits define her.
So far the only definition of my daughter, the only 'label' I use, is her Africanness, because that seems to cause so much trouble and confusion when we are in Europe.

Maybe this lack of definition is because I don't feel like I struggle with her. We do have moments of conflict, but I see that as my struggle with myself, instead of being caused by her.
This is indeed something that Shefali discusses at length in her book, yet if we have to reach acceptance of our children by labeling what we struggle with, aren't we doing them an ill favor? Labeling is so intrinsically connected with judgement that I struggle to see how it can lead to acceptance.
We label what we don't understand or resist, and we label what we admire. Everything else falls beyond our line of sight.

Maybe a better way to reach acceptance would be to recognize the labels we apply to our children and to erase them from our language. To evaluate how we speak those labels and which ones we see as positive and which ones we see as negatives. And to ask ourselves why. Is it because of hopes and aspirations? Fears? Unaccomplished dreams?



  1. I'll be interested to see what you say when you finish it. My take on it was that you are acknowledging the labels that are arising within you about your children. Whether they are accurate or not, they are arising within you. Once you name the labels, you can begin to understand where they come from within yourself and move to a place of acceptance, both of yourself for having those thoughts and of your child for being who they are. This is freeing rather than identifying and denying or erasing, you're embracing: yourself, your issues, your thoughts, you child and their issues and thoughts. Kind of like in your previous post, yes?

    On a side note about the book, I felt her language was unclear and plodding, as though deliberately padding the book's length. As I said, I'll look forward to you review.

  2. Hi Zoie, So far I am 1/3 through the book and I think it is something everyone should read, parent or not... but I have 2/3 to go, we'll see how it turns out :)
    I agree with you that this is probably how she meant the exercise to turn out, however, if you've got someone like me who deliberately refrains from thinking in labels, about anything, then having them point to labels, to me, is making a trap for oneself.

    What I would consider a better idea is to analyze what you say about your child, to him and to others, and then ask yourself why? If what you are saying is healthy, if you are saying it because you want it to be true or because you don't like that behavior. Instead of just sitting there and finding labels, investigating the ones you use... am I making sense?

    If you name a thing that was unnamed before, does it then become a problem?

    By labelling those things, the way she does, to me it seems like laying the problem with your child, while the problem is with you. Isn't it better to evaluate what ticks you off and then seek why and how you can change that?
    Like: I don't like when my daughter hurts me, it brings me back to when I was hurt as a child and I was defenseless... this is all about me. I am not sitting there, saying: my child is aggressive, my child hits, I accept that.

  3. I've been rally struggling with the labels thing for some time now, so this has been a really helpful post for me. I'll look into the book you mention. My problem seems to be that I label my daughter to prove that she is not what others expect her to be. I've been told that attachment parenting will make her clingy, so I tend to label her as bold and outgoing. Even though those are positive labels, they aren't the whole story. More food for thought for me. Thank you!

  4. Such a great reminder! Whether we recognize it or not, the struggle is always with ourselves, not our children. When my husband comes home after we've had a tough day and asks about it, all I can say is "it was all me. He was feeling X and I didn't respond like he needed me to."

  5. @Tacey, we live in a society where everything needs to be weighed, measured and labelled, our children do not fail that treatment. It is important for us to understand the effect that has on them (will do a post about that when <i get a spare minute) and that these labels are generated by US, that they are our INTERPRETATION based on our expectations and fears... if you come to recognize that, you'll be able to slowly let go of labels and accept your child as is, as the complex unique being she is

  6. I used to be very anti-label. Over time, I started thinking that it's more about what I *do* with the label. If I know that a child (or an adult) is very active, then I am able to plan things that enable activity. If I know that a child (or adult) needs slow and overt transitions, then I'll plan in ways that try to meet those needs. If I know that a child (or adult) is very sensitive, then I'll try to plan accordingly, and I'm likely to pay more attention to kid interactions, in case dynamics become too rough for the kids who are more sensitive or quiet.

    To me, the reasons and intent matters. Some labels enable me to plan awareness and activities that may be more likely to honor, respect, and support individual styles than if I had to wing it. To me, labels used that was are very different than "just" labeling someone as active, ADHD, sensitive, fussy, shy, difficult, etc.

    There's also the concept that labels can be a useful shorthand to me. Heck, even "authentic" parenting is a label. Is that bad? It might feel like an odd or even critical label to parents who have more mainstream styles ~ does calling ourselves "authentic" imply that other parents are *not* authentic? That would (understandably to me) seem to be insulting. Yet if the intent of the label "authentic" is to serve as a shorthand, it *does* let me have a heads-up to more easily identify parents whose parenting philosophies may be more similar to my own.

    If finding spiritually like-minded people is important to me, then labels of Catholic, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, etc. may be useful shorthand, instead of sharing a list of particular beliefs.

    If finding educationally like-minded people is important to me, then labels of homeschooling, unschooling, eclectic schooling, public schooling, montessori, etc. may be useful shorthand, instead of sharing a list of slim, agnostic, atheist, etc. may be useful shorthand, instead of sharing a list of educational curriculum or lack of.

    All that to say that I've shifted from being very anti-label, to thinking it's less about the labels, and more about the *intent* of the labels. if the intent is to serve as shorthand to find like-minded-ness, and/or to prepare better for dynamics and activities that respect and support individual styles, then i'm ok with labels. if the intent is to distance, separate, ostracize, criticize, judge, and find wrongs, the labels don't work for me. but in those cases, what really bothers me is not the labels as much as the intent. the labels may be a scapegoat for what *really* bothers me in those cases.

    Your mileage may vary.

  7. I think that how we assign certain traits as being negative or positive changes how we respond to our children. Perhaps the problem lies not in labeling per se, but how we categorize that label as being attractive or distasteful. If we find a certain trait challenging to manage because it conflicts with our own personality, we might think it is offensive but it is simply our perception of it.

  8. Couldn't agree more, however, the labels in itself do have an effect on your child, SINCE they are based on your assessment. As I said before, I should really do an article on that

  9. @Anonymous, I only got to post this now, because your comment got sent to spam... That's a really interesting comment, and I can't help but agree. Indeed sometimes labels can be handy, as is the case with the examples you give. Indeed, everyone labels, even if you strive to be label free...
    However, the examples you pointed out here are about labeling ourselves, which I think is less detrimental than labeling your children. If we are labeling our children, are we determining them?
    I'll have to think about this a little, because this is making my head spin :)

  10. Anonymous here...
    "However, the examples you pointed out here are about labeling ourselves, which I think is less detrimental than labeling your children. If we are labeling our children, are we determining them?"

    Excellent point about labeling ourselves vs. labeling our kids. And great question about whether labeling our kids determines them. Both statements led me to ponder more to try to clarify my thoughts.

    In many cases adults DO label kids. Yet even then, for me it's evolved to be more about intent than the labels themselves. If a parent tells me that their kid has a very kinetic learning style, "kinetic" is a label that is more likely to be a word chosen by the adult than the child. And yet, it seems like the intent is to let me and others know that this kid is likely to have more fun and enjoyment in his life if we can coordinate activities that enable him to *move*! It seems like that kind of labeling, even though it's done by the adult and not the child, is intended to *support* the child, because it lets other adults know what style of activities the kid is more likely to enjoy.

    If that parent told me that their kid has ADHD, that label has me more likely to bristle ~ "kinetic style" doesn't carry a derogatory, something-is-wrong-with-the-kid message to me, yet "ADHD" seems to do so. Yet even if the parent uses the label "ADHD", I'll look for intent by considering context, and/or overtly asking the parent about the label. Is the parent using the label "ADHD" in a way that says their kid has something wrong with them? Or is the parent using "ADHD" to convey to me that their kid really needs to be moving a lot? Is the parent using "ADHD" to try to find other kids who also enjoy moving a lot, as a way to find like-minded-ness in their kid's playmates? Maybe the parent isn't familiar with the term "kinetic learning style", so for this parent, ADHD is their shorthand for that phrase?

    Words matter, and some words carry disparaging implications, yet even then, it might simply be a case of the parent not knowing less disparaging terminology. Yet the more positive terminology such as "kinetic" is still also a label. I'll try to give the benefit of the doubt when I hear labels that feel disparaging to me, while I look for intent.

    As for whether the label determines the child... isn't that a chicken/egg situation? Maybe the label "kinetic" does contribute towards determining the child. Yet it seems more likely that it's a case of the parent observing their kid's patterns enough to see a kinetic style, and sharing about that is the parent's way of *supporting* that child in being his active, moving-a-lot self. If that same parent doesn't have the word "kinetic", and uses "ADHD" to convey that same intent, it still seems that the parent's label is about supporting their child's existing need to be active. That is very different to me than using the label "ADHD" as a way to share what's wrong with the child and how the kid needs to be "fixed". So for me, it still comes down to the intent, more than the label, even/especially when adults label kids.

  11. anonymous continued...

    It also makes a huge difference if the label seems like *observation*, vs. the adult's *interpretation* of the child's behavior. I try to pay attention to see which it is. I am more amenable to labels when they are observations and the adult looking for support of what they've observed about their kids, than interpretations.

    Although it feels less conflicting when we label ourselves instead of our kids, it seems like a reality that as individuals, we each *do* have some styles and preferences that can sometimes be useful to convey in the shorthand of labels. For better or for worse, being older than our kids, and sometimes having a larger vocabulary, we might be more able than our kids are to find words to convey our kids' styles and preferences. And in a way, when our kids can't speak for themselves, I feel it's part of my job as a mom to advocate and support my kid. Sometimes a label is a shorthand way to help do that.

    As an example... my daughter was *very* sensitive when she was little. Letting other adults know that she's sensitive, and for her, a paper cut will have a reaction that sounds more like her arm got cut off lets the other adult know what to expect. Yes, it's a label, yet ironically, sharing that my daughter was sensitive was a way to *support* that aspect of her in several ways ~ it let me share my own intent, expectation, and support of her high emotive responses as an aspect of who she is as a matter of fact, and not judgment or minimizing her responses. And in sharing that, other adults' reactions enabled me to identify if we were like-minded about supporting someone that way without minimizing or condemning her (dramatic!) reactions. If they weren't like-minded in that way, I'm not leaving my daughter alone with them, not even quickly to go to the bathroom!

    I don't think the label "sensitive" necessarily determines her ~ yet it IS an aspect of who she was at the time. I also know she will change in some ways, and her sensitivity might or might not be something that changes. Yet NOT letting another adult know of her sensitivity and my support of her sensitivity seemed like a recipe for disaster.

    Thinking about the kids... in some cases, I think our kids might be "labeling" themselves without words, because they don't have the words themselves. And sometimes, I'm glad they don't have the words! Especially when a label *is* critical/derogatory. Yet a kid who yells and screams when he's expected to sit down and sit still may be telling me in actions, rather than words, that he wants to be *active* and moving, and sitting still isn't working for him. Perhaps it's just this day, this time, his current mood or health or emotional situation. Yet if that's a pattern for him, his yelling when he's expected to sit down and sit still seems like his own way of telling me he wants to be active and moving. He may not have the words or the "ability" to explain it as "I have ADHD so *please*, can we do some movement instead of sitting around here?!", or "My learning style is kinetic, so *please*, can I move?!" Yet his behaviors might be telling me that.

    Even "positive" labels seem to have pros and cons, yet I don't see a way around using labels as useful shorthand sometimes. A very intelligent kid might lose patience or be bored with tedious tasks or lessons that another child might love. I might or might not like the label "gifted" yet it does give me a heads-up about the child (and/or the adult's opinion and/or observation about the child), and if I am in a position of helping to "educate" that child in a homeschool group, the label enables me to know I might want to include some more challenging activities for that child.

  12. and the last bit...
    Whatever the label, if I have an advance heads-up label from an adult, I'll realize that it might be a case where the adult is positively or negatively judging the kid, while also realizing that it may be a case where the adult has observed this kid and the advance heads-up label is shared because the adult has sincere and kind interest in enabling others to support their kids' style. The label itself usually isn't adequate to let me know intent, but context, tone of voice, the parent's style, and overtly asking can lead me to see if the intent feels kind or critical to me.

    As for whether the label determines the child... I don't think there's an easy answer about that. In some ways it seems like a chicken/egg thing, that circles back to the adult's intent ~ are they sharing a label as shorthand of what they've observed in the kid, as aspects of who the child is at this point in time? And as a way to find like-minded-ness and support of aspects of who the kid is (now)? Or are they labeling in an expectation and/or critical way? In either case, I've seen kids and adults live "up" or "down" to the labels about them. And I've also seen adults and kids not being determined by the negative or the positive labels about them. Isn't that the age-old question about whether it's more nature than nurture, or vice versa? With my own kids and many kids around me, I've been consistently surprised that there's way more nature than nurture than I ever expected.

    That doesn't mean I don't have concern about labels determining people, yet I'm not *as* worried about that as I used to be. And even there... I think it's still more about the *intent* of the labels that may sometimes contribute to determining people, than the labels themselves. If we say that a kid seems intelligent, sensitive, active, and we're looking for like-minded-ness and other adults' support of those characteristics, I think our kids are usually smart and intuitive (labels!) enough to sense the positive intent and aren't likely to be damaged by the labels.

    If we say that a kid is intelligent as an *expectation* about that kid, and if we say that a kid is sensitive and active as complaints, I think our kids are smart and intuitive (labels!) enough to sometimes feel pressured by our expectations and the negative intent of our words and then are more likely to be determined and/or damaged by the labels. I keep circling back to how much it's about intent more than the labels themselves for me.

  13. This is such an interesting conversation, and it's sparking so many thoughts I'l have to read and reread and just type them out as I go along, so there may be multiple answers to your comments (I figure you had the same thing happen :) )
    First of all, are you Shefali? LOL

    On your first comments: you're actually distinguishing positive labeling versus negative labeling, positive labeling will occur when a parent distinguishes behavior he approves of and would like to encourage, albeit unconscious. Negative labeling occurs when a parent interprets a certain type of behavior as unwanted, maybe shameful and wants to get rid of the behavior, it is frustrating him. Again, this can all be unconscious, and generally is.
    I think either kind of labeling is in a way determining for the child, they can either have an enforcing effect: the child tries to emulate the desired behavior or exaggerates the unwanted behavior or counterproductive: where the child tries to be other than the label prescribed, either to the desire or the frustration of the parent (self fulfilling and self denying prophesy)

    Here's something I wrote about the topic before

  14. Yes! I'm very definitely distinguishing between positive versus negative labeling. And you might have (intentionally or not) cut right the the core in a much more succinct way than I'd been able to achieve ~ your description of positive versus negative resonates strongly for me... yet isn't that connected to intent?

    If I use labels that convey (consciously or not) my disapproval, shame, and fears about aspects of my child, it seems to me that it's less about the words/labels I choose than it is about a (conscious or unconscious) intent to convey my own negative thoughts and beliefs about those aspects of my child. And I can't help but believe that those negative beliefs play out in ways that have my child live up (or down?) to my negative beliefs, or rebel against them. And so yes... my negative beliefs seem likely to have a strong influence in determining my child's behavior, one way or another.

    I think that even "positive" labels can be negative if they come from expectations and an intent/need (conscious or not) to see myself as a good parent through my child's behavior. If *I* need others to see my child as intelligent, beautiful, insightful, kind, loving... well, who *doesn't* want their kids to have have some of those aspects?

    Yet it's different if I am describing aspects I've observed about my child, than if I am using those labels as (conscious or unconscious) affirmations and testaments and "proof" of my parenting skills.

    The former might enable a child to feel loved, noticed, and valued for aspects of who they are. The latter seems more likely to have a child feel pressured to perform (so that I can feel good about myself because of how my child behaves?). At some level, I think our kids can tell if our labels (even "positive" labels) are about supporting them, or shaming them, or expecting/pressuring them to be or not be certain things for our own reputation rather than support of who they are.

    So for me... yes ~ "Negative labeling occurs when a parent interprets a certain type of behavior as unwanted, maybe shameful", and I think it's also un-good labeling if a parent interprets certain behaviors as desirable for their own pride, and/or in ways that convey (consciously or not) that if the children don't live up to the pressure/expectations we have about those "good" labels, the kids will have disappointed us.

  15. Just read your link. LOVED it!!!

    It reminded me of a concept and a quote... the concept of trying to catch our kids doing things "right", instead of falling into a pattern of only catching them doing things "wrong".

    i'd add your wise words to also ponder how and why we think of some things as good or bad, right or wrong... we may be able to catch them doing things good/right more if we expand our views about "good".

    and a quote that relates to whether we're seeing our child for who he is now, and not the past or the future kid we might wish for...

    "The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them." -- George Bernard Shaw

  16. I also completely agree that words matter, but translation matters more. Take the example of bossy/dominant/strong willed/stubborn/spirited, these are terms used to describe a similar sort of behavior.
    Parents can use these terms and perceive that behavior as either positive or negative, that depends entirely on them, their background, their education.
    However, when they speak out these words, no matter which of the terms they choose, and no matter if they perceive it as positive or negative, they will voice these words to others, an others will also interpret it based on their own background. Thus, most often, a child will *feel* both interpretations, negative and positive... Thus even positive, enforcing labeling can backfire and raise insecurities in the child.

    E.g. Parent: My child is very intelligent/intellectual
    Other person thinks: they're just showing of, wishful thinking...

    The child will sense their reactions and doubt the parent's words, maybe doubt himself

  17. I *think* we're saying the same thing here. : )

    Although you added the reality that other people's perceptions also play a part. I'd have to agree about that. For me, that is why it might be even *more* important for me to use some labels in the positive way, as shorthand to help me identify like-minded people as far as overall parenting philosophies. That way, my "sensitive" daughter is more likely to have her influence be me and other adults i've "chosen" to be close to our family because they perceive her sensitivity as "just" an aspect of who she is for now, as opposed to being surrounded by adults who think of her sensitivity as unreasonable/demanding/dramatic/extreme/erratic, etc.

    "with our thoughts, we make the world" with our thoughts/intent, we shape our children...?

  18. "It also makes a huge difference if the label seems like *observation*, vs. the adult's *interpretation* of the child's behavior. "
    any observation is merely an interpretation, and observation in itself changes what is observed... but we're really entering quantum physics here

  19. ah.... it may be semantics as well as quantum physics then. : )

    I was meaning interpretation as our stories and judgments about behavior. Which is different than just taking the behavior as an "is" (and possibly temporary) aspect of the kids (and adults) around us.

    Saying someone has blond hair is simply an observation. Implications of dumb, ditzy, airhead, *or* beautiful, more fun, more attractive, etc. would be cliché stories and interpretations about "blond".

    Saying a child is active/kinetic based on observations of the child (and ideally also finding out directly from the child that they don't like to hold still much) is different than adding our own stories and interpretations that "active" reflects bad, misbehaved, socially inept, *or* that "active" means that the child should be an athlete, etc. would be stories and interpretations about "active".

    In a literal sense, it might be that adding labels or any words at all to anything runs risk of mis-interpretation and influencing people. Yet words are also ways to communicate, connect, and show acknowledgement of who people are so they can feel seen and heard.

    To me, if I share words, including some labels, without my own judgments and stories, I'm more likely to have the words result in connection than negative outcomes. So mostly, it's worth the risk.

    Hugely because I think kids (and adults) often sense true intent, even if words are inherently not going to ever be perfect.


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