Monday 22 April 2019

The powers and pitfalls of labelling

As parents we often ascribe certain attributes to our children and ourselves, but we may be limiting growth by doing so, writes Sarah Courtney

Stock image
Stock image

This year, I have again made the mistake of not labelling the various bit of school uniform well enough, which means at least once a week I'm forced to dig through the musty red lost and found box, where small clothes wait patiently for their owners.

As I yet again rummaged through the red box at school, it got me to thinking about labels, as it's something that comes up in my coaching conversations all the time. When did we decide to label ourselves or accept the labels others place on us? Are these labels helping or hindering us? Do they still hold true? And when is it smart to challenge those labels?

The power of coaching often comes from the ability to speak out loud and for your words to be reflected back to you, without judgement. Listening to your own words can be the first time you really hear what you are saying to yourself. It is remarkable how character traits get assigned to children so early in life and they can really stick with them. I have four siblings and we all know each other's labels but I won't out them here. In families the intent is often affectionate with no malice whatsoever but it still remains a fact that constantly hearing the same message can have a significant impact on how we see ourselves.

As a mother, I recognise the influence of labelling. I overheard my daughter on a playdate being told by her pal that she was shy. And the thing is, she can sometimes be shy - but I don't want her to pigeonhole herself as shy. Because she is so young and maybe next week she'll decide she's not shy anymore. She can be whoever she wants, be that shy or otherwise. Labelling doesn't help. It only limits.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University is known for her work around the concept of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. Dweck advises, "If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don't have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence." Dweck warns of the dangers of praising intelligence as it puts children in a fixed mindset, and they will not want to be challenged because they will not want to look stupid or make a mistake. She notes, "Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance."

This all comes back to labels. John is 'good' at maths; Jane is not. Gender stereotyping aside, who do you think will do best in a maths test or believe that with some effort they will have the capacity to do higher level maths in the Leaving Certificate? In an era of constant change, how will those with a fixed mindset fare? How much more enjoyable can life be when you leave yourself open to becoming who you choose to be, not who someone casually labelled you as? An off-hand remark which they never thought about again, might stay with you for years. The person who labelled you is only human and it's fair to say that humans aren't always right.

For me as a parent navigating the unknowns of a new school year, Dweck's advice is often at the back of my mind. I never want to hold my children back because I label them in some way and accidentally reinforce a fixed mindset in them.

In a coaching context, some people say, "Oh I just work part-time" and smile apologetically. Labelling yourself as 'just' something always shrinks the impact and makes you smaller. Other say, "I never saw myself as ambitious". This is always an interesting one especially when coaching someone in a senior role. How did they get there if they weren't ambitious on some level? Perhaps they were raised to associate the label of 'ambition' as something negative. A friend mentioned to me that there was a standing joke in her family that she was an 'accident'. While her family may have meant it as a gentle joke, for her it was very real and she spent an inordinate amount of time trying to prove her worth in her personal and professional lives. This label coloured her decisions well into adulthood. Another person struggled with her weight as a teenager and, despite being very slim for well over a decade, she had labelled herself as 'fat' and, again, this really shaped how she made decisions in many seemingly unrelated aspects of her life. What different decisions would these people have made if they were given alternative language and the encouragement to choose for themselves?

We tend to view ourselves through the lens of our labels. So if you think about it, it makes sense that we should do an audit of those labels every so often to check if they are still right for us. There is great value in challenging how we perceive ourselves to see if those labels still hold true. Ask yourself, are they a real reflection of who you are today, or even who you aspire to be? Do they support and empower you? Or are they an unwanted legacy from childhood or teenage years, or from some stage in your career? One of the values of coaching comes from shining a light on these labels and deciding if you would like to peel them off. Similar to those iron-on children's name tags, the ones that are meant to stay put all year. Well, clearly mine never do, so maybe with a bit of effort our labels can come off or at least fade.

So as you settle into the new school year, take some time to hear how you describe your children. What phrases do you often use? "Jack isn't academic", "Grace is so reliable", "Emily is the pretty one" - it's so easy to play the same record over and over again, until these words become part of their identity. And what that means is they subconsciously live up to them. Opinions become fact. Their label starts to become who they are. So Jack learns to not even try applying himself to his studies because there is no point, and Grace feels disproportionate guilt if she ever lets anyone down, and Emily learns to place more value on how she looks than who she is.

Author and Nobel Prize winner in Literature Toni Morrison said, "Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." I love that. Those definitions, those labels, are all about the definer, the labeller. They are not really about us. We are more complicated than a tagline, and as this school year continues, my wish is that I remember when to say nothing and just let my children be who they decide to be.

Sarah Courtney is a mother, business and life coach and champion of supporting parents who want to remain in the workplace. See

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