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Family Dynamics

To Label Is to Disable

I was the troublemaker; it took me years to stop believing it.

In my family, as I am sure it is in yours, each of my siblings is known for a specific characteristic. My oldest brother is the clever one, the second is the religious one, I am the troublemaker, my younger brother is the enigmatic one, and my younger sister is the sweet one. These labels were given to us as children and it is quite interesting how we all lived up to these labels to some degree.

Although these sibling labels add to an interesting dinner conversation about family narratives, they in fact limit the potential of each individual sibling.

Allow me to share a story that illustrates the danger of labels.

For the first year of my oldest daughter's life she primarily interacted with her immediate family and a few neighbors. When she was about a year old my wife and I decided it was time to introduce her to the world, to let her see the wonderful universe she will be spending her life in, and take her to synagogue one Saturday morning. My wife dressed little Liora in her Saturday's best, put her in her stroller, and headed to synagogue. Since services were still in progress, my wife decided to take Liora to the playground behind the building until the end of the services. Our daughter did not attend any day care so this was truly her first introduction to unknown children. She began to walk around the yard, enjoying this newfound independence, with my wife a few steps behind her.

Suddenly out of nowhere a little dirty, smelly child of about 4-years-old ran up to my little angel, grabbed a chunk of her beautiful blond hair and pulls with all his might. My wife leaped forward, in what seemed like slow motion, to save our child. It took my wife a few seconds to pry this kid's filthy, little hands from my child's head. Liora's initial reaction was absolute shock. After those initial moments of shock, my child began to cry with a heartbreaking wail. By the time I caught up to them, about 20 minutes later, Liora was still in that post-screaming, hyperventilating phase of rapid-gasping-for-air segments followed by a quiet exhaling (if you've seen a child in that stage you know what I am talking about). This was my child's introduction to the world.

We proceeded to the candy table at the post-services social to find the best goodies to give our distraught child (to compensate for the trauma, a parenting lapse of judgment under extreme duress). As we were standing at the table, stuffing Liora with cookies, I saw a lady holding a child approaching us. My wife whispered to me that this was the child who physically assaulted our angel. My wife had to hold me back from going after that kid. The mother approached us and said: "I understand from my sister that my little angel (I wonder what kind of heaven she envisions) hurt your child. I just want to let you know that I am sorry but a school counselor told me that he is a difficult child!"

This mother was, in essence, telling us that she could not be held responsible for her child's atrocious behavior because a professional had labeled him as difficult. What can she do about it? She is a great parent, but God gave her a defective child.

Teachers, counselors, even parents often label a child based on a specific aspect of the child's behavior or personality. The label then becomes an integral part of producing what is referred to as a "self-fulfilling prophesy." Everyone around the child begins responding to the child based on the label, they expect behaviors that will confirm the label, and the child overtime begins believing it and acts in ways to confirm the label.

When we label siblings within a family, we are disabling them. We are preventing them from growing up and becoming whatever it is they want and could become. We are narrowing their possibilities and limiting their potential. Children in the long run will have a very hard time breaking away from the label.

Take it from the troublemaker.

More from Avidan Milevsky Ph.D.
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