Many parents have fallen into the trap of labeling their children. Somehow it gives us a sense of control over children with the illusion that we have them figured out. “Anna is the stubborn one,” “Tommy is so bossy,” “Lana is always pokey,” “Billy is so disorganized.” The fact is everyone has positive and negative traits. If we only focus on the negative, even in a joking way, we reinforce the negative behavior and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you deem your child “stubborn,” and she is told that she is stubborn, this is how she will behave.
For instance, there are many people who were called “irresponsible” growing up. This was reinforced in their actions and they begin to internalize this view of themselves. The more they were called irresponsible, the more irresponsible they acted. They became their label. We as parents should try to avoid setting negative expectations. There are several things we can do to reinforce positive behavior in a “stubborn child” or “irresponsible child” or with any negative label we use to describe children:
- We need to find a positive label. Redefining our viewpoint of the child’s behavior will help us see the child in a positive light.
- Start reinforcing the behavior using this positive label.
Parents can get creative. Positive labels for stubborn can be “focused,” “determined,” or “committed.” These are commendable attributes. If we use these new labels and find ways to praise children instead of criticizing them, we can help children improve their behavior.
For the “stubborn” child, instead of saying:
“You are so stubborn you never get in the car when I tell you too!”
You can say:
“You were determined to get that basket. You couldn’t give up the ball until you did it. Now you can share…”
For the irresponsible child, instead of saying:
“I can’t believe you left your homework at home! You are so irresponsible!”
You could say:
“Wow, you usually are responsible about your homework. Everyone forgets things every once in a while!”
It helps if we can look at our children and ask ourselves the following questions:
- Is there a negative role that you are inadvertently placing your child?
- What do you think that role is?
- How does that impact on your relationship?
- Is there a more positive label you can use to describe their behavior?
- How can you start reinforcing their behavior using this positive label?
It is also important to know that there is usually a good reason behind your child’s behavior. The fidgety child might have sensory integration issues or even ADHD. This knowledge can make us shy away from calling them wild, impossible or a troublemaker. A child who is not following directions may have auditory processing issues. A child who refuses to throw a ball to you is not being oppositional; he simply has poor gross motor skills. A child who bursts into tears when you hand her a worksheet is not a crybaby but overwhelmed with frustration at the thought of completing it. We can and should find ways to look for the positive in our kids. It will help us improve our relationship with our children and be proud of who they are. It can only benefit our children.