This was a conversation amongst the Dads at a birthday party I recently attended:
"My son was labeled 'multi-disabled.' And, I was like, label him whatever you want just help to learn."
"Really? One teacher told me she thought my son had Aspergers and so we did the research. We went to the pediatrician to see whether we needed to face this and deal with it. The pediatrician told us there was no sign of him having Aspergers. We went back to the teacher, and she clung to her diagnosis."
"Our son's teacher said, 'Not that I advocate putting kids on meds, but you might want to get him checked by your doctor to see if he has ADHD.' The third time she made that recommendation it was clear that she was advocating to put him on meds."
"I'm a principal and the reality is, teachers have no expertise in diagnosing this stuff. But, because they are teachers, some parents assume that they do." He then went on to explain how shocked some of his fellow educators are to find out that his children are home-schooled.
Labels are used to put kids in categories so that they can more easily be fit into the educational system. The system only works if we can get the kids through easily and smoothly without clogging up the gears. And, if you or your child start clogging things up, you will have some labels thrown your way.
We all do it. It is how our society works. There are just too many variables to give everyone an honest assessment all of the time. So, we say things like, "He's a conservative" or "She's a feminist," "Those homeless people" or "Those rich people," or we use racial slurs or homophobic language.
Labels kill relationships before they start.
We label so that we don't have to take the time to get to know the real people that we are talking about and so we make a million assumptions about them.
Children are often labeled by "experts" because they need to "document" their history so they can "get services." The system works this way, but as parents, we shouldn't. Actually, as human beings who love other human beings we shouldn't.
Labels stifle growth.
Instead of using labels to identify those around us, we need to start learning their stories. There is power in knowing someone's story. It reminds us that we are referring to a person with all of their strengths and weaknesses, good qualities and bad, past hurts and future promise.
Robert Coles, whose research led him to interview children, often multiple times over the course of years, described rightly the role of the researcher as learner. With all of his education and experience, he was tempted to enter into conversations with children in order to try to fit them into his psychoanalytic paradigms. Early in his career, he realized that if he wanted to advance the field of research he was in, he would need to let the children teach him.
He realized that only they could teach him about the ways in which children understood their world. From this new vantage point, he was able to discover great depth in the spirituality of children.
As parents, we too, are learners. We must not assume that because of our education or experience or simply our role as parent, that we have to fit our children into a category in order to understand them or worse yet, fix them.
Labeling our child "strong-willed" or "shy", "stubborn" or "promiscuous" doesn't help us or them to grow spiritually.
The tools that we have at our disposal can help us, but the labels oversimplify our understanding of our children and give us an excuse to not continue to grow in our understanding of them.
We made this mistake with out youngest child, Ryan. For years we introduced our family to new acquaintances and inevitably, when we got to Ryan, he would hide behind Mommy or bury his face in Daddy's pant leg. And, so it would go, "And, this is Ryan. ... He's our shy one."Ryan entered a new school in his third grade year. At our first parent teacher conference, I mentioned that we were trying to change that habit of labeling him and begin positively reinforcing other behaviors that were more outgoing and expressive of his inner feelings and thoughts.
His teacher, an experienced educator, agreed that that would be good and recalled, "I remember the first day you came to see the classroom. I was told that he was shy before I even knew his name."
Let your children be themselves. Emphasize and reward those characteristics that you want to see them grow into. Point out when they work hard, say kind words, face a fear, or demonstrate generosity.
How different Ryan might be today if we had introduced him differently, "And, this is Ryan, you are going to love getting to know him!"
How different Ryan will be a year from now because we have removed the burden of this label from him?