Despite the hopes of my 7-year-old, this is not a post about Under Amour or Nike. This is a post about the labels we wear on top of, underneath, and all around our clothing. These are characteristics given to us by others or sometimes invented by ourselves that we internalize until they are part of our core.
“He’s a bad sleeper.”
From the wee age of 4 weeks old, we labelled my son as a “bad sleeper.” Because he was, and continues to be, a person who struggles with sleep. People know about the sleep struggles in our house. If they can’t tell by the bags we all sport under our respective eyes, then I’m happy to share our sleep horror stories.
When I was recently racking my brain (again) for something (anything!) to help improve sleep habits in our home, I read that people who have a hard time sleeping believe that they are inherently bad sleepers. I know its a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, but I had to think-labelling theory? Read on.
Labelling Theory-Do Labels even Matter?
Labelling theory was the first sociological theory that really stuck with me during my undergraduate years. Dr. Howard Becker, creator of labelling theory, argued that labelling someone in a certain way encourages them to internalize that label. If enforced through repeated labelling or left unmitigated the label is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To test his original hypothesis about the power of labels, Dr. Becker followed the lives of teenagers whom others labelled as deviants at a young age. He found that these teens were more likely to display deviant behavior as adults than teens who had not carried that label. Of course, this is just a part of the picture, but a valid part nonetheless.
Where do labels come from?
In the case of my horrible sleeper (along with his ‘wild’ brother and ‘sassy’ sister), I am the original label maker. In conversations, and on this blog in fact, I have not been shy about the quirks and traits that characterize my kids. My stories are an outlet for my own struggles, a nod to other parents who can relate, and even sometimes a cry for help. As such I’ve driven home certain characteristics time and time again. Somehow it still catches me off guard when one of them uses the labels I’ve created to describe each other. And even more so when they use these labels to describe themselves. (e.g. “I can’t sleep because I’m a terrible sleeper.”)
Sometimes other people create labels based on one or two experiences on which they extrapolate. Other times they have little evidence to back them up. Either way, we walk around with labels based on how others see us, and our kids do the same thing. It’s what we do next that makes the difference.
The power of labels-for better or for worse.
What I walked away with when I first learned about labelling theory was the evidence that labels carry a lot of weight. And that just as people live up to their negative labels, positive labels can affect one’s life path, too. How can we intervene and mitigate the negative power of labels? By changing the script and by creating positive labels for ourselves instead. It’s a mind trick, but this is not the first place where you have read about the power of positive thinking or about the placebo effect.
As parents we only have so much control over the characteristic-based labels our children wear (not talking Nike here). We can combat the negative labels by first being aware of them, and then addressing them before kids internalize them. My own ‘wild one’ has come to me before thinking he was “a loser” because someone called him that at school when he lost a game. Hopefully as adults we realize that one loss doesn’t make you a loser, but my son was in tears and was convinced he was always going to be a loser. So much so that he decided he wasn’t even going to practice or play said game at home because it didn’t matter. In his eyes he was forever a loser.
So, we talked. About labels, about losing, about how things we do or things that happen to us don’t define us. And we redefined his label. He wanted to be known as “hustler” (haha, I know) as in one that hustles to get the ball. The coach of his older brother’s baseball team once noted that no one “hustles” like my oldest. His little brother wanted that label, too.
The same goes for the labels we (and others) give to ourselves.
Being aware of labels, and convincing our kids and ourselves that we are more than the labels we wear is an everyday job. We can go along with the labels we would rather not sport, or we give ourselves labels that represent the people we know our children are and the people we want to be. “You are a good kid. I am a good mom.” Then, we can live up to those labels.
But there is something else I have discovered about labels.
The things that define us are the things that connect us.
I have no intention of hiding who I am or the struggles that I go through as a parent. This usually means I have to divulge things about myself and my kids other people would hide. But it also means that I might make a connection with someone who can help me/ someone I can help. And because of that I’m actually grateful for labels.
There are many times when I publish a post and immediately have a sick feeling in my stomach. I think, “I shouldn’t have written that.” Now someone will think I am a () or my kids are (). Sigh.
But those are the times people reach out to me.
If labels are a side effect of my honesty, then I can handle those, too. So I have to ask-what labels are you wearing?
- What labels are your kids wearing?
- And what are you going to do about it?