Labeling Children

I have a two-year-old boy. Following directions is not high on his list of life goals at the moment. I’m sure just about every parent can relate.

So my ears figuratively perked up when I read this NPR article (link to article) titled, To Get Help From A Little Kid, Ask The Right Way. From the article:

If you say something like, “Please help me,” the kids are more likely to keep playing with their Legos. But ask them, “Please be a helper,” and they’ll be more responsive, researchers report Wednesday in the journal Child Development.

They found that using a label (ex: “please be a helper” or “you don’t want to be a cheater”) was 20% more likely to get the desired response than using a verb (ex: “please help me” or “don’t cheat”). Interestingly, this same approach worked on adults (ex: “how important is it to be a voter” vs “don’t forget to vote”), too.

But of course there’s a downside. There’s always a downside. Kids who were told they were good drawers were far more negative about their drawings than kids who were told they put a lot of effort into it. For behaviors that arise from a skill (ex: drawing, playing a sport, etc), labeling a child can create expectations and a fear of failure.

How God Labels Us

God does a lot of labeling in Scripture. Here are some of my favorites:

Jeremiah 1:4-10 (NIV) – The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Matthew 19:14 – Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Mark 3:35 – Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Genesis 1:31 – God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning–the sixth day.

John 15:15 – I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

God calls you his creation, so you are very good. Jesus calls you family. God formed you in your mother’s womb. God is with you. Jesus says his kingdom belongs to children of God like you. God has a purpose for you. Jesus calls you friend.

Labeling and Parenting

I have the privilege of interacting with a lot of families. I have noticed that labels tend to persist. If someone has a well-behaved baby, people assume that child turns into a well-behaved toddler. If someone has a colicky baby, that problem child is going to be trouble. If someone has a big kid, they’re big in people’s minds even when they’re not anymore. The same goes for a sick kid.

I suppose my challenge from reading this article is to be cautious how I think and speak about children (mine and others’).

Labels are powerful things. I am reminded of James 3:5 – “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” Fire can create fertile ground for growth. But it can also burn down the forest. And as a wise bear once said, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Discussion Starter

  • How have you been labeled in your life?
  • If you have children, how do you (purposefully or not) label them when speaking to them? How do you label them when speaking with your spouse or friends?
  • How do God’s labels for you inspire you or challenge you?
  • How can you impart God’s labels upon your children?