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Why the Way you Talk about Children in Front of Them Matters

September 12, 2016 by Hilary Lauren Jastram

When you eliminate labels from your vocabulary, you give your kiddos the tools to discover a long-lasting healthy self-esteem.

Once upon a time when my kids were little, I heard a theory I have never forgotten. That we should never label our kids as anything. Not even a good girl, not even a sweet boy. Definitely none of the antonym variety. It made me wonder about the effects of what our kids pick up when we think they’re not listening.

“Quiet, Brent, mommy’s on the phone.” To the caller, “You know he always needs attention just like his dad.”

“Oh, don’t mind Sylvia, she was born shy.” *Trying to nudge her from behind her mother’s legs.

“I said put that down, we don’t touch dangerous things! Why do you always have to push the limit, Taylor?”

It’s hard being charged with so much, keeping little ones alive and healthy in all manners and now we are supposed to start adding self-control to the mix?

I’m exhausted and the last thing I want to do is get vigilant about my behavior.

I get it. But the facts are there. Children who are referred to and labeled turn into children who predictably carry out those labels (at least, in my experience!) When you tell a child she is a drama queen at lunchtime, suddenly she’ll be dramatic during all hours of the day. It’s why we need to stop comparing kids to other children. When I slip and talk about one of my kid’s behaviors in front of the other, it’s because I'm struggling to explain what I the other child to be able to do! “Just sit still and listen like Teddy does,” seems to make the most sense and take the least amount of energy.

I have been, if not the black sheep of the family, a very dark shade of gray for a large part of my life. The result of self-labeling has perpetuated, which is what happens when others label you. You give a longevity to the cycle which will continue, so the child skips from hearing these pronouncements about themselves to repeating them as self-talk.

Labels are limiting. Then they limit.

We’ve consulted a handful of child psychologists, we felt out of our league and it was helpful to learn the ways in which we needed to change talking children. It boils down to what you might suspect: if you want to address a worrisome situation, talk about the behavior and how it makes you feel and why the behavior is not something that the child should repeat. We have a tendency to call a child mean when they take things from others, but this is a disservice to the child, maybe their behavior is mean, but they aren’t a mean person.

Behavior is much easier to change than labels—which become embedded and eventually seen as truth.

If you do talk about your children in ways you suspect aren’t helpful, don’t worry. We’ve all done it. You simply watch yourself, you stop and address the issue in a positive and encouraging way without assigning a label. Working with children is an exercise in trying harder every single day and cherishing those breathtaking moments when you get it right. When you initiate positive self-talk and eradicate labels you give children the tools for self-esteem on which to build.


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