“You are such a pretty girl.”
“You are so smart. You are the smartest kid I know.”
“He’s active isn’t he?”
“She’s your feisty one.”
These are common phrases said to or about my sweet babes. All of the words are true. All of the words are not exclusive however. Labeling kids has been a hot topic of parenting for decades. “If you label them as shy then they will feel like they need to live up to that expectation and always be the shy one,” said dozens of people over the past two decades of my life as I prepared to be a teacher and now as the Mister and I currently parent our 4 children.
Years ago, as a young professional in the education world, we were instructed to use “child-first” language. In other words, you’d say “a child with a learning disability” and not a “learning disabled child”. Always put the kid first. But in the teaching profession- we’re inundated with labels so it’s imperative to remember that they’re important but the child is the focus of the job. Labels have big power. They can feel like freedom for some (Oh, that’s why she struggles with reading! She’s dyslexic). They feel like dream crashers (Oh. He’s autistic. Will he marry? Go to college? Hold a job?) They feel unnecessary (So, she might be ADD. She could get an IEP, maybe some meds. We’ve lived totally fine without both. Why start now?) The problem with labels is that they can be inherent and become an identity for the child. They are not their label. They are uniquely and wonderfully made. Parents and teachers must choose/tread carefully when entering the world of “to label or not to label”.
Back then I wasn’t a mother and used labels out of necessity, but there’s a difference between a label and speaking words of character into your child. As a mother I have learned the difference. Words of character distinguish the child in a life-giving, positive way; labels pigeon-hole the child.A few years back one of my mentor mom friends told [a group of us younger moms] that she always spoke words of character to her children. She shared her experience as telling her kids, at prayer time, that she was thankful that God gave them the gift of x,y, & z (always repeating the same gifts each night). As her kids matured into teenagers one of her boys was faced with a situation involving peer pressure and choosing between right and wrong. He chose correctly in the end and when his mother asked him what led him to make that decision, he said that he’d always known God gave him the gift of kindness. It was the kind thing to do. It was who he was.
He identified himself as being kind. Oh, how I can’t wait for the day when my kids will have a similar story. That the words I’ve been speaking into them will be solidly rooted in their hearts. And so I’ve chosen to pick characteristics that will lift them up. They love hearing my words and I always end our little character giving moment with telling them that they are important (you is kind, you is smart, you is important—from the book The Help really gets the credit for “important”).
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling them they’re feisty, and smart, and beautiful, and even shy. I just don’t want them to think that those are the only things that make them special and refrain from using them in excess. Instead, I tell them lots of character gifts- every day- but end up with the same 2 or 3 character gifts from God.
Our nights end with prayer time, a wink or a snuggle bunny and then I say, “You are strong. You are compassionate. You are important.”. (for example… and props to the Mister- he totally does this with our little prince)
Perhaps labels and words of character are a matter of semantics. But I firmly believe in the power of words. What words are you speaking into the lives of your babes?
This post was inspired by ch. 3 and 4 of Desperate by Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson. Read with me.