Life of 6

Why we consciously resist labelling

When I post photographs of the triplets in Instagram, I rarely bother to point out which triplet I am referring to.  The reason being: I find it annoying when people literally take what I say and then affix that label on that triplet permanently. This is because most people are eager to distinguish one triplet from another, a common problem if you have multiples. In the quest to find uniqueness, what people end up doing is unproductive labelling.

I have plenty of problems with labelling, even if those labels are positive ones. The biggest problem I have is that I know a person is an entirely complex being, with many characteristics that fluctuates according to their circumstances. So from the time the girls were 0 to 2 years old, they took turns being needy and independent. There was never really a neediest one or the most independent one and having that characteristic stay at the same constant. Depending on how they felt at that moment, they can fluctuate quite wildly, and quite realistically so because they are growing.

There are also more damaging labels which ends up being self-fulfilling prophecies because children are eager to please adults and they work very hard to fulfil the labels given to them. Now what’s wrong with giving a child a positive label like saying he is artistic? He draws well, so why not just say he is artistic.  The problem is that a human is made up of many things and they can be many things, depending on the seasons and the opportunities present.  They might have inclinations towards certain activities and behaviours.  Maybe spurred by sudden inspiration, draws a wonderful picture and keeps practicing at it and getting good at it. But its okay too, for the child to put down the paint brushes and suddenly get into a musical instrument the next season. That’s what childhood is for: to explore different things.  While some are lucky to find the one thing they are extremely good at, most others like myself, find themselves jumping from one thing to the next and being good at them for a season and then moving on to something else. In other words, when you tell a kid he is artistic, as opposed to saying, you worked really hard at that drawing, you are telling him that the ability is innate/inborn/natural without needing to work hard or get better at the craft or even try other kinds of thing (yes, we are back to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset). You also risk pigeon-holing him from a very young age, when their brains as still plastic and adaptable to learn many things, that he is only really good at this ONE thing.  What if one day he discovers he is sick of drawing and painting, then what? Is he capable of nothing else because all his life he was told this was his destiny.

For twins and triplets, labelling comes almost naturally and instinctively because you see in front of you two or three kids who look exactly the same and you have this inner drive to understand where they stop being similar.  You actually have to stop yourself, as I have many a time, from finding differences and question why one is like that and the other isn’t. For instance, one triplet starts walking and someone inevitably goes, oh she’s such a fast learner, never mind that the gap for a child starting to walk can be anytime between 10 months to 18 months old and that starting at 10 months or 18 months has no bearings on intelligence or learning abilities. What it really does is create senseless competition between siblings for parental validation.

So in our household we are very, very conscious about labelling and we keep ourselves aware that children can change, adapt and are willing to learn if given a stimulating environment to play in. We focus on processes rather than end-products.  We are also patient when our child rejects something, for examples, eating vegetables. We don’t tell our kid vegetables are good for you, that’s why you must eat it.  Instead we say we hear you, you are not ready to eat vegetables and then casually offer it again the next meal. In our household, it took the girls 1.5 years of being offered salmon, cooked in various styles, before they started liking it.

In terms of behaviours, we compliment our children for hard work, persistence, or resilience when they complete a difficult task. We also let them know we find that it is a brave and open-minded thing to do to try something they are not comfortable with, like putting their head underwater at swimming pools.  We also highlight to them that frustration is normal when things don’t go our way. So you will not find words like intelligent, smart, clever, good, bad, naughty, artistic, pretty, ugly, fussy eater, difficult etc. bandied around loosely in our household.  We tend be more inclined to say things in a more longish way, like if they solved a problem creatively, rather than say oh so smart, we say that’s some creative problem-solving! Trust me, it was not easy to stop saying oh, so smart because we really had to psychologically un-do so much of our own upbringing.

Its really not easy to resist labels in our society that focuses so much on competition and sorting children based on their abilities from a very young age. We feel proud when the preschool teacher says our child can do ABC while all the other kids are behind at XYZ, never mind the ones at XYZ will eventually reach the levels of ABC at a later time so making that a distinguishing point is moot in the first place.  Like an article I appended below says, “Children will become who you say they will become or who you say they are. So, give them the opportunity to be more and different than what you perceive them to be.”

For further reading, you can check out these articles

The danger of labelling kids

Resist labelling

Why its dangerous to label people?

Is labelling children good or bad? The view of a school pyschologist

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