Last week, I bought a new planter to re-pot a houseplant that I’ve had for years. There was a price tag stuck to the side of it, so I gently scraped around the edges with my fingernail, hoping to pull the sticker off in one smooth piece.
It didn’t work.
Instead, I was only able to chip away at the tiny bits that came off, one by one. It was a frustrating half-hour or so, but I finally managed to pull off the entire sticker. I transferred the plant and placed it in my front window, thankful to be finished with the messy job. But as the sun streamed in and I glanced over at the new set-up, I noticed that in spite of all my hard work to get rid of the label, I could still see an outline of sticky residue.
That got me thinking: The “labels” we carry are like that, too.
Many of us work for years to shed the labels that we — or others — have applied to us, only to find that after all our hard work, the sticky “residue” of those labels still remains on our psyche.
“You’re too heavy to wear that.”
“You’re not a good enough student to take that class.”
“You can’t do that by yourself.”
Labels have a way of sticking with us. And even when we think they’re gone — that we’ve shed them for good — they have a way of showing that they’re still there: Criticism from a boss or spouse…your child facing down a school bully…post-pregnancy or mid-life weight gain. Sometimes, it only takes the slightest reminder to scratch the surface of our buried doubts and fears.
I heard about a mom recently who was concerned because she’d been referring to her baby’s “chubby thighs” and overall roundness. Now, she said, her older preschool-age daughter has taken to calling the baby “chubby” in what she felt was a negative way and she was concerned that “chubby” would become a label that would stick.
I think she’s right to be concerned — not because her infant will develop a bad body image today, but because labels have a tendency to stick. And, as parents, it’s important to be thoughtful about the labels we apply to our kids.
Want to avoid sticking your kid with a label she’ll hate? Here are a few ideas:
- Watch the appearance-based comments (even the “innocent” ones). Comments about height, weight and facial features can hurt, especially when they’re perceived as criticism — and you might be surprised by what kids consider criticism.
- Watch the family labels, too. Telling your daughter that she has Aunt Edna’s thighs can be hurtful if it’s not exactly a compliment. Be especially careful with critical comments about physical features that can’t be changed.
- Remember that even “nice” labels can be a burden. Telling one daughter that she’s pretty, while telling the other that she’s smart, can make each girl feel bad about what she “lacks.”
- Share some family history. If your daughter complains about a physical feature that’s prominent in your family, find a non-emotional moment to look at photos together and talk about your family history. Talk about the accomplishments, hopes, dreams and personalities of the people you see and the love they had for each other, not their physical attributes.
- Drop it. If your kid is stuck with a label or a nickname that’s causing pain, let it go — no matter how funny or innocent you think it is.