“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” When I was little that rhyme was the big, bad, powerful statement we used to ward off the vicious attacks of other kids.
That rhyme gave us power but didn’t protect us from the sting of the words. It didn’t stop the ugly words from sinking in and taking root. It didn’t stop those words from becoming the way we saw ourselves or from imagining it was the way others saw us, too.
What got me thinking about this was a parent-child interaction I witnessed this week in the grocery store, and this conversation about basic needs for healthy relationships, in which a member named Nancy R. shared the thought that “The emotional hurt may be hidden from others, but it plays on your mind, heart, and soul.”
If you remember the sting of mean words spoken to you as a child, why would you ever label your kids in ways that could be hurtful to them? I’m not talking about labels like “autistic” or “sensory seeking”; I’m talking about calling your child “sloppy,” “liar,” “stupid,” “awful,” etc.
Do parents who do this believe that labeling their child will change something about them or help correct a behavior? Can that ever work?
An “Awful” Boy
I was in line at the grocery store when I heard a mom very calmly and very firmly whisper to her son, “Are you an awful boy?” The little one tried to pull his body away from his mom, as if to escape the sting of his beloved mother’s words, but he couldn’t. He very sadly dropped his head and said, “Yes.”
This little one’s face told the whole story. It was obvious this was not the first time mom had said those words to him. You could literally see the effects of his mom’s words being accepted by his emotional self. You could see the words becoming part of how he will define himself, now, and in the future — I am an awful person.
We’ve all read that parents need to separate the behavior from the child, that parents should tell a child that his behavior is awful, not that he is awful. I don’t agree. I don’t believe that children can distinguish between the two, not really.
Think of it this way. A group of little girls are playing. Trish looks at Suzie and says, “Suzie, your hair looks funny!” The other girls laugh. Does Suzie understand that she’s just having a bad hair day, or does she translate that comment into “I’m ugly”?
I suppose she could have if her parents had coached her on how to respond, maybe by giving her a one-liner comeback like, “You think my hair is funny today, you should have seen it yesterday!” from Sally Ogden’s book, Words Will Never Hurt Me: Helping Kids Handle Teasing, Bulling and Putdowns. But most kids can’t deflect labels so skillfully. Labels become deeply rooted in how they see themselves and affect all future decisions about what they are and are not capable of.
Most of us remember the sting and impact of a peer’s mean label. Imagine how much bigger the sting is when a parent labels.
When the one person a child sees as always being right, her beloved parent, labels her, she just accepts it and defines herself by it. The wound is so deep that it requires a great deal of reprogramming, if you will, to change it.
Why do we need to use harsh words at all? There are far better words to use — words that can actually motivate a child to change.
3 Questions That Improve Behavior
When your child behaves badly, try asking her if what she did was kind. Was it safe? Was it respectful? These three questions begin the process of change and teaching — without categorizing or labeling.
As an educator, a mom, a former child, and now an empowered adult, I implore you: stop labeling your child, even if the label accurately describes what he’s done. Using words that motivate change will get you and your child where you want to go, faster.
Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and the Skills e-class. Visit proactiveparenting.net to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs.