Why it can be challenging for parents to truly accept their children the way they are
I remember very well how my mother always tried to motivate me to socialize with other kids. "Go play with them." But the truth was I was having a hard time connecting with other children. I liked playing by myself and didn't understand what was going on.
Fast forward 20 years, I am at the playground with my young child, motivating her to play with other children. She clearly wants to stay with me and clings to my dress. I am torn. I feel somehow annoyed because I need a minute just to breathe. But on the other hand, I feel sorry for her.
And then I start to think about it. Maybe she is like me. Maybe she prefers to be by herself right now or with me cause obviously, I am her safe place. Why are introverts in adults a normal thing, but children always have to be social?
How we are turning to labels without realizing it
Good and bad. Shy and social. Clingy and outgoing. From birth on, we start putting labels on our children for normal behavior. It doesn't necessarily come from a bad heart or with bad intentions. I even think that most parents are doing it without realizing. But the danger is that sometimes parents get so caught up in those labels and fail to see beyond them. And then they are so focused on their child's behavior it is as if they are not seeing anything else anymore.
Why are we labeling children?
As parents, we are often confronted with difficult situations or have conflicted feelings about certain subjects. Sleeping, eating, social behavior. Deep down, we know that every family is unique and every child an individual person. But still, we all are racing to create this perfect version of our child. It's only natural that we want to raise our children to the best version they can be. But we often forget one aspect: temperament and character don't change. And when we stumble upon behavior that makes us feel uncomfortable, we can make sense of this situation by putting a label on it.
Now we have it on hand, an actual explanation. If they don't greet family members, we say they are shy. If they don't eat other people's food, we explain that they are bad eaters. If we argue, we convince ourselves that they are just so stubborn.
Making meaning out of an uncomfortable situation is comforting because it feels like an excuse for behavior we don't really like.
Naming it and blaming it
Another thing that labeling does is that it makes us feel more empowered and in control of a problem. We can google it talk with other parents about the issue. We can act on it even if it is normal behavior that does not need special acting.
There is another side also. It gives back certain freedom. Sometimes we use labels as an excuse for our child's behavior. But yet, we do not attempt to help our child through it because it is just the way they are. So, in fact, we are giving our child a bad label, blaming their behavior on it, and giving them a free pass. And we don't even realize that this behavior might have resulted from our behavior as a parent.
A friend of mine always told me that her child is very independent and self-determined. But in reality, she had trouble setting boundaries and sticking to them. She avoided every conflict with her child.
How labeling can harm parents
Now while labels can make us feel good and affirmed in some way, they can silently harm us, too, without even realizing it.
You see, how we see the world determines how we interact with it. What we think and say sets the expectations of our children and, subsequently, how we respond.
If we are so convinced our child is so shy, we focus so much on the times our child did not greet or say goodbye again. We turn it more and more into a constant reality and convince ourselves that we see these 'problems' happening over and over again. And every time we observe this behavior, it frustrates us more and more.
If our child is a picky eater, it will drive us nuts every time they refuse to eat something or even try it. Having a meal becomes a challenge because all we see and think about is how our child will not eat again.
If we are convinced our child is so clingy, we will get so annoyed every time they prefer one parent over another, call us, or want to play with us instead of other children.
So as you can see, putting labels on children can provoke all kinds of negative emotions. From resentment towards our child to shame, embarrassment, or even anger about their personality trait. And they will follow you through your day-to-day life.
When we see our children through those negative labels, we also change our expectations about them and become more critical. We might set even higher expectations that are not accomplishable. It is like a vicious cycle that drains uns in negativity and prevents us from seeing positive behavior.
Why it can harm our children
Labeling a child cannot only change the way we see our children but will also have an impact on how others see and treat your child. Expectations towards them might be lowered, and hence they can be robbed of opportunities or challenges to reach their full potential.
It can also lower their self-esteem and confidence. If your child hears over and over what you think of them, good or bad, they will start to believe it's true and ultimately begin to act out that behavior.
What you can do instead
Start implementing a different point of view. Be open to letting change happen from your side and try to understand that certain behavior is completely normal during child development. It is not always easy to change our views, but when you start to have good expectations towards your child, they will happen. Children naturally want to please us. When they see that you truly believe in them, they will mimic that behavior.
Think about it. Is it really that bad that your child prefers to be with a small group of familiar people or even only with herself or you? Or does it need to bother us so much that our child has trouble sharing that we call them greedy? With our children still needing to grow and develop, how appropriate is it really for us to label them?
It is better to analyze the circumstances and understand where that behavior is coming from instead of putting a stamp on it and keeping it under closed files. Allow your child to experience every emotion. Not only those socially accepted like happiness but even uncomfortable feelings like anger, fear, or sadness. These are obviously challenges through which we need to guide our children with compassion and support. Only by addressing those feelings, you will teach your child how to cope with them.
It is kind of sad that we already evaluate our children from such a young age, don't you think? I know I have done it. In our minds, we have set a perfect picture of a child, pleasing the "norm" of today's competitive world. But everything outside that norm doesn't have to be a bad thing.
We need to let children experience all aspects of life without categorizing them so early on. We need to shift our way of thinking away from the norm that society has created for us and accept that each child is an individual. Every child is born with a unique character. My kids will never be like yours, and yours will never be like mine.