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Watch your words: labeling your kids can have long-lasting effects

July 24, 2015

This post was originally posted in May 2014.

As a parent, my words to and about my child will probably be one of the single most influential aspects of their development. Children learn to see themselves through their parents’ eyes, and what we tell them they are, they are likely to become. The labels we place on them often tend to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve seen this play out in my own life and in the lives of those closest to me, and I was reminded of it as I read some new research published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers determined that 10-year-old girls who had been told they were “fat” were significantly more likely to be obese at 19 years old than girls who had never been labeled “fat” by someone close to them. This difference occurred regardless of their starting weight, economic background, race and parental education. In other words, even girls who weren’t overweight at the time that they were labeled as “fat” were more likely than other girls to become obese.

Researchers speculate that perhaps saddling a child with a label early on in life changes their behavior in a way that makes it more likely for those predictions to become a reality.

This study rings true to me for one very personal reason- because I was one of those little girls who was told she was fat. My mother often commented about my weight, and as a child I knew no better than to accept her assessment of me. Not only did I believe that it was true, but I believed I would always be that way, no matter what.

As an adult, I’ve come to realize that it was my mother’s own insecurities and inability to find self-acceptance that caused her to place that shame upon me, but I didn’t know that when I was a child. I saw myself as she told me I was, because she was my mother and I trusted her. Looking back, I realize that what a child believes to be true about herself is just as important as what actually is true.

Parents who have shamed their children in this way may argue that it’s out of concern for their child, that they want their child to eat better or exercise more and they hope that being “honest” with them will promote a healthier lifestyle. I think this study highlights an important point: shaming people doesn’t cause them to change; it causes them to give up.

Labeling our kids even with seemingly harmless words can do damage as well. I have a friend who is the mother of three grown boys. I’ve heard her say that she was told a long time ago about having three boys that the oldest one would be the smart one, the middle one would be the athletic one and the youngest would be the best mix of both. She says it with a laugh, as she has determined that to be true in her boys as they’ve grown.

I have to wonder, though, whether the label placed on them affected who they would eventually become. How did her belief in those labels affect how she parented her children and the different expectations she placed on each of them? If a child is told (directly or indirectly) that he isn’t the smart one, couldn’t that belief affect his self-confidence and his willingness to assert himself academically? Is it that he was never as smart as his brothers or simply that he never believed he was as smart as his brothers?

I know that my words will make an indelible mark on my children. The labels I place on them will be the way they define themselves until they enter adulthood and begin to establish their own understanding of who they are and who they want to become.

My goal is to give my children the freedom and encouragement to define their own path, support them in the ways they are uniquely gifted and walk alongside them as they face their individual challenges. After all, I’m just a passenger on their journey; it’s not my place to say where their travels will take them.