Wouldn’t we all like the freedom to reinvent ourselves? I know I would. For example, I’ve been pegged (can’t imagine why) as an “un-domestic” type, lacking talent and confidence in the kitchen, never living down the fact that I had no idea how to make a cup of tea until I was forced to learn (in a panic) while waiting tables at Marie Callender’s at 15, a job I quit (to no one’s surprise) after two days. Still, I would like to know that I could possibly study to be a master chef at the Cordon Bleu someday…if I wanted to…and that I’d have the open-minded support of my family and friends, and they’d hold their guffaws.
At one time or another we’ve all felt labeled, and most of us have acted on the normal tendency to label others. Tagging people with a word or two is like speed reading. It cuts corners, but by oversimplifying it often impedes accurate comprehension while inviting cliché.
There is usually at least an ounce of truth in labels. Still, they hold us back, and are especially detrimental to children. Our children are rapidly evolving. They need to feel unencumbered by judgments — good, bad, or indifferent — while they are learning who they are, and how to relate to others.
Bullies and Victims. As children get older, bullying is a serious, even deadly issue. We must be always be aware of our children’s behavior and do all in our power to prevent them from bullying or being victimized, but labeling children ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’ at any age will not help alleviate the problem. Early branding makes it far more difficult for children to grow and change, to comprehend the complexities of social situations and handle them effectively.
The RIE Parent/Infant and Toddler Classes are unusual because we allow even the youngest infants to interact with minimal adult intervention, and we aim to observe as objectively as possible. The children are grouped with others of the same age, and kept from hurting each other.
Parents worry when children struggle over a toy. If their child ‘wins’ they worry that she is aggressive. It their child is “taken from” they worry that their child is too passive. But if we step in and return the toy to the child who had it first, or say, “Don’t take that away, that’s not nice,” we project and reinforce those beliefs about both children, rather than supporting them to learn to navigate social situations themselves through experimentation.
If we refrain from intervening, the children usually show far more interest in the interaction itself then they do in the toy. There are often multiples of a toy, but the toy that is in another child’s hand is almost always the only one of interest. The class facilitator acknowledges the situation non-judgmentally, “You both want that ball. Now David has it.”
Giving and taking are ways that infants and young toddlers connect with each other. Eventually the child who behaves more passively will learn to find another toy, or hold on more tightly, bait and switch, shout “no!” or run away if he wants to keep the toy.
The young child who behaves more “aggressively” eventually learns that taking toys is not the best way to “join” with another. This learning process takes time and practice. The lesson infants and toddlers learn when an adult steps in and fixes things is that they are incapable of handling a social situation themselves, and that the most influential people in their lives may perceive them as bullies or helpless victims.
Why shy is painful. I prefer to think of shyness as a feeling rather than a character trait. I feel shy in certain situations, and sometimes it comes over me when I least expect it. Being shy is perceived as a negative, not a designation a child can feel proud about, and it is hard to break out of. (“Whoa, look at you dance! What happened to my shy boy?”) It is often said teasingly, or used as an excuse when a parent is disappointed in a child’s social response. Yes, some of us are more introverted, but labeling a child “shy” makes him feel…well…shyer.
You’re so smart! A revealing study recently reported in Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article “How Not To Talk To Your Kids”, and discussed in my post “Praising Children, Risking Failure“, dramatically demonstrates the danger of labeling children “smart”. The New York City schoolchildren who were praised for their intelligence after the first in a series of tests lost confidence and motivation, while the children who were praised for “trying hard” persevered and succeeded. The “smart” label, like all labels, gave the children a designation that stifled. While we can control our level of effort, the only place to go from being “smart” is to being proven “not smart”. And that possible loss makes giving one’s effort a risky thing for a child to do.
Labels are static and unconstructive. They make us feel stuck rather than free to change, improve, reshuffle the deck. If we can’t reinvent ourselves weekly, daily, even moment-to-moment as infants and toddlers, when can we? So let’s keep an open mind, lose the labels and witness every twist and turn of discovery in our ever-evolving children. I love a mystery, don’t you?
I share more about fostering healthy social skills in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting