Boxes are for Playing in

My name is Eileen Joy.  That’s right, that’s my name.  I am not keen on being labelled and I am not keen on being put into a box and neither are my children.  They like to play in boxes, they like to role play, but those things do not define them.  When our children are born we don’t pick them up from the shop, shiny and new, in a box with a manual explaining exactly what to do.  They don’t come with warranties, with a free call number to call when they malfunction.  Why?  Well because they are individuals, each with their own unique flavor and characteristics and their fit with us as individuals is a dyad that has never EVER happened before and will never EVER happen again.

Image courtesy of digitalart

But as soon as our children are born we start getting boxed in and we start boxing our children in.  Let me give you a few examples… co-sleeper, routines, vaccinate, not-vaccinate, AP parent, CIO parent… relaxed, working, SAHM, WAHM, easy baby, sleeping baby, fussy baby, independent, strong willed, aggressive, pretty, defiant, rude, silly, stupid, dumb, bright, gifted… the list is as long as we have adjectives in language.  So if it’s so rampant, and it is, why do I have a beef about it?  Well, adjectives are darn useful, but they can get us in to a lot of trouble.  I’d like you to think about the “shy” child, are they shy because they were born that way, or are they shy because they were raised that way?  Or was it one situation where they were labelled as “shy” and then the label started to become them?  Labels of children start to become the children themselves.  If you think your child is shy you will behave differently towards them.  I’m not saying you should ignore your child’s temperament and push them into public situations and ignore their sensitivities, I am asking you to rethink how you think about your child.  I’ll start by giving you an example.

In our house we eat widely, from a range of cuisines.  My daughter has never been into spicy food, which is a slight problem given we love spicy food and hubby is Indian.  So, we would tell her, no, you won’t like that, it’s spicy.  We had labelled her as a “Non-spicy eater”.  Our behavior was starting to define her, she didn’t eat spicy food and would ask before trying anything if it was spicy.  So one day I decided to stop doing this, and say to her, how about you try it, and see if you like it.  So now we just let the kids try whatever they want.  Within 2 months, she had started eating Sweet Chilli Sauce, and even getting it from the fridge herself to pour all over her plate.  That’s with something fairly innocuous.  What about if I had been calling her “dumb” or “gifted”??  What would the effect then have been???

So, if I called her dumb/silly/stupid, would she then stop attempting things, because why should she bother?  She’s stupid/dumb/silly, it’s innate, there is no point.  Now this is easy to see, not so easy to see the harm when I say “gifted”.  Let’s tease this one out a bit.  Suppose I say gifted/clever/bright/smart or any of it’s derivatives.  That’s great praise coming from a parent, and the sort of praise that parents dish out on a daily basis.  Imagine you’re the child, what happens if you are confronted with something that you doubt you can do?  Would you attempt it?  What would it mean if you couldn’t do it?  Would it threaten that label?  Well, we don’t have to wonder about the effect of this, because some pretty clever psychologists, namely Carol Dweck, have actually been looking at it for us.  The effect of praising your child for something that sounds like it is innate means they don’t try as hard as someone praised for EFFORT!  Pretty amazing stuff, right!

I cringe when I hear people labeling their children now, I realize the harm that it can do, and I do everything I can to stop labeling mine.  I admit there are times I cannot help it, I have grown up in a culture of praise, so of course I’m going to slip back into it every now and again, but I do my best to stop it, it’s labeling and not helpful.  There are many resources on why it’s not effective… Psychology Today has done a fabulous piece on it,Alfie Kohn writes about this all the time, and many many other blogs/articles discuss this issue.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with this.  This is a speech written by a 14 year old New Zealand girl, for her class speech competition, it floored me, and it deals quite eloquently with the problems of labeling.  I hope that my two children can grow up to resist labels, and be as brave as Mackenzie Valgre…

Year 10 Speech – Mackenzie Valgre

I have once cut myself, am I an emo? I loved our history internals, am I a geek? I’m white, am I a stuck up cow? I’ve had three boyfriends this year, am I a slut? I’ve lost a whole group of friends, am I a loser? I passionately stand up for what I believe in, am I a bitch? The answer to these questions should be no, however we live in a society today where teenagers would say yes. Everybody’s speech has been about physical diseases, illnesses and disabilities. Well labelling IS a disease, one that desperately needs a cure.

Conformity is the basis of labelling. Wikipedia defines conformity as the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to what individuals perceive is normal of their society or social group and it is mostly associated with adolescents. We all conform. All us students in this room are wearing school uniform, we are conforming. We are abiding to the schools rules and expectations of wearing the light blue shirt and navy skirt or pants. I’m going to make the assumption that Mr Peter drove to school this morning. If he did he most likely drove on the left hand side of the road. This is conforming. He is following the law and the road regulations. These are examples of positive, ordinary conformity. We don’t have to think twice about following these social expectations, (well maybe if you’re a bit of a rebel you might wear the odd non regulation hoodie here and there) they are second nature. However conformity goes deeper than just the school’s expectation and the road code. Conformity is involved in everything; pop culture, morals, family, religion etc. and what we conform to defines us. So what happens when a nonconformist is interested in something society deems “out of the ordinary”?  Or what happens when the majority notice a minority? We label them. A person with coloured skin is labelled as stupid. A person sticking up for a someone with a disability is labelled as a loud mouth. A girl with a boyfriend and a short skirt is labelled as a skank.  We take one piece of information and we let it decide that is how we shall identify them. However these naïve, uneducated and cruel labels are destroying our generation.

Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. First described by social psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues, stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. For example, in research at Stanford University, black students performed worse than white students on a standardised achievement test when they were told that the test measured intelligence. Not only does labelling affect performance. Research has shown that over time, some victims of negative stereotypes display self-fulfilling prophecy behaviour, in which they assume that the stereotype represents norms to emulate. In 2008, Toni Schmader, Michael Johns, and Chad Forbes published a model noting that stereotype threat has been shown to disrupt working memory, increase self-consciousness about one’s performance, and cause individuals to try and suppress negative thoughts as well as negative emotions such as anxiety. They suggest that these three factors summarize the pattern of evidence that has been accumulated by past experiments on stereotype threat. In laymen terms, when you call someone a homo, skank, bitch, slut, geek, emo, goth you screw with their brain, you destroy their self-esteem and eventually if you persist long enough you will negatively alter the way they see themselves and they will start to live up to your label .  Long story short, that tirade of research proves that labelling people can have a life changing adverse effect.

Bad habits die hard, and we are part of a generation that labels automatically. I have been known to be a terrible labeller and I have been labelled myself.  However I am a fourteen year old girl. I wear a nose ring, describe myself as a feminist, I’m an insomniac, I love the band Florence and the Machine, I wear short skirts and make up, I believe in psychics, I dance like a spazz, I love my boyfriend, I experience anxiety attacks and make random animal noises occasionally. I am a human being with real emotions, morals and experiences. I am not a label.

6 Responses to Boxes are for Playing in

  1. I don’t think I’m missing the point here. But if we don’t call a spade a spade then how are we supposed to identify anything anymore?

    How do we accept our inner critic and the useful things it has to say?

    How do we live in a fragmented society without employing concepts and vocabulary and generalisations? We need all the adjectives we can get our hands on.

    • We can label a person’s behaviour, not them. Yes, adjectives are useful. For instance, I did something really stupid when I sped and got a speeding ticket. Does that make me stupid, no. There is a difference between labelling behaviour and people. The latter boxes people in and does not allow for growth or change. The former is global and labels EVERYTHING that the person does. I’m not saying don’t use the concepts, I’m saying use them very carefully and specific to behaviour, not people.

      • I understand your idea here about splitting a person’s identity from a person’s behaviour. That’s deep philosophy you’ve got there.

        Socrates and Plato were the early thinkers who proposed that forms exist like ghosts in some other dimension. And that these forms (eg shape, texture, lamps, lettuce, ham, tomato, green, red, hot,..) waft into the material world where we live. Christianity (“love the sinner, hate the sin”) picked up on that and Descartes followed it up a bit with the mind/body duality.

        But I’ve never quite found this convincing and I hope you will say more. Seems to me I never saw walking going on without a walker. Or green without it being a green something such as paint or light or grass. Likewise, I’ve never seen matter without form or characteristic. Entity and identity, people and their characteristics/properties/behaviours, always seem to turn up together. If I did you can bet I’d have my camera out to take a picture of these things in a flash!

        I agree we need to use concepts with care. May we not also be responsible and identify behaviour if we promise to do so with honesty and care?

  2. Thanks for your post. I agree that labels are terribly important. unfortunately it can take an awful long time to identify the ones we live with and work to shake them off.
    I don’t have a red shirt – so I’ll have to wear purple or something today. but I’m so pleased that something is happening demonstrate a response to this ridiculous clanger from our PM.
    Mackenzie’s speech is fabulous. Thank thank you both for sharing it.

  3. I have a 7-month-old girl and find myself often saying “well done, clever girl!” and then realising this is the wrong thing to say. I don’t want my daughter growing up with the pressure of being thought of as clever and having to live up to that.
    I’d be really interested to see a post suggesting things we can say instead – it’s a very hard habit to break!

    • Good idea Vicky, I will add it to my future blog topics – I have a lot of ideas on this one – and yes, I agree it is a very hard habit to break. In the meantime, have a look at Alfie Kohn’s website, and try to get hold of a copy of his book, Unconditional Parenting – he has a lot of really great examples.

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