Since language was first developed, people have been attaching labels to everything; it’s quite natural, helping us to make sense of the world we live in. Although labelling is often necessary, and a very effective way of connecting people to ideas, at times it can have a negative impact on people’s impressions and opinions of the world.
It is one thing to label an object, but can we ever justify labelling a person? Most humans will have ideas about others, and knowingly or not will tag them with labels such as ‘generous’, ‘greedy,’ ‘clever’, ‘lazy’, etc. With humans’ ability to change, grow and develop, how correct are we in doing so? I ask this particularly with children in mind, who are only starting out on life’s journey. We need to ask ourselves what are the possible consequences of attaching labels to children.
As with everything, there are two sides to this debate:
Positive effects
  • Labelling can help us to identify children with special needs.
  • This will in turn allow caregivers and professionals to develop an effective IEP (Individual Education Plan) and provide extra learning support where needed.
  • Identifying specific needs may be necessary to attain government support and funding.
  • Recognising a child’s needs and where his/her behaviours possibly stem from, helps others to be more understanding and tolerant of them.
Negative effects
  • Labelling a child can actually influence the way others see and treat them.
  • When a child is negatively labelled, people’s expectations of them are lowered and as a result the child may not be adequately challenged or receive the opportunities needed to reach his/her potential. Even apparent positive labels such as ‘good girl/boy’ can put them under severe pressure to constantly perform, striving to meet people’s expectations of them. This can be equally detrimental to their development.
  • Once labelled, it is very difficult to lose that tag, despite the fact that children are often mislabelled.
  • Naturally, labelling a child will have a huge impact on their self-esteem. When a person hears something about themselves often enough, they eventually start to believe it and act accordingly.
  • Putting labels on children can affect how their peers see and treat them.
How can we avoid tagging children with unnecessary labels?
  • Recognise that children are only starting out on life’s journey. Don’t fence them in. As yet, they have much learning and growing to do. Their behaviours are not fixed. Given the right support and conditions, they can learn and grow positively from their experiences.
  • Identify and make reference to the child’s behaviour if you have to, rather than attaching a judgemental label to them. For example, you might say "You worked really hard on this project and deserve to do well" instead of "You are bound to do well as you’re such a hard worker."
Children need to know that is okay if they are not always performing at peak or desired level, that it’s safe to get upset or angry every once in a while without fear of being judged for it. This knowledge will give them the freedom to connect with who they truly are. By avoiding labelling children, we are giving them their best chance to become the people they were born to be - and isn’t that all we can ask of anyone?
Given the right support and conditions, Cinderella’s true nature shone through, transforming her from a lowly servant girl to a beautiful princess; the Ugly Duckling grew to be a glorious swan. I think the message here is that without ‘ugly sister’ or ‘judgmental duckling’ behaviour, an individual’s potential can reach magical, sky-high levels. So, in conclusion, I believe, as much as possible, let’s avoid labelling our children and give them the chance to discover a fairy-tale ending of their own.
Pre-School Education Expert



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