June 13, 2014

The Upside of Labels

Labeling has a negative connotation. Parents often assume they would not want their child labelled. Somehow, the word "troublemaker" is often the label to be avoided. Yet, in other areas of our lives, we want labels. How else would we know the ingredients in packaged food? We look to labels for guidance -- dry clean or machine wash?

We assume labels will come to stigmatize or limit the child. But what if a label can actually provide an explanation -- both for the child and for the adults in the home or school. Many agree that it is invaluable to know if a child has a learning disability. Parents frequently lament that they didn't know sooner. Knowing one's child is dyslexic, for example, can provide much needed relief. The child is able to grasp: I'm not stupid. I'm not lazy. I just need to be taught in a different way. Parents and schools can take this label and tailor the educational materials and presentation methods appropriately. Today's technology can ease the burden.

Yet, adults are still wary of letting others, including the child, know of a diagnosis such as ADHD. Here too, though, it gives the adults a way to understand the child's behavior. S/he isn't always acting willfully and may react before having the chance to think through behavior. Trouble finishing work may be more reflective of distraction than an academic difficulty. Again, children themselves can be extremely relieved to know that there is a name for why they often lose or forget things, act impulsively, or have trouble focusing or following directions consistently. They can understand: I'm not a bad kid. I have challenges to face, but lots of people succeed with these challenges. Some even become famous! Labels can provide guidance and much needed hope.

We're even reluctant to let children know of labels that reveal strengths. Parents fear that if their child knows s/he is gifted, for example, s/he may become arrogant and get a "swelled head." But, isn't the child entitled to know why s/he feels different, while being taught to be gracious about gifts? We don't hesitate to label the gifted in sports -- in fact, the MVP on a team may get a trophy, or later in life, a car.

Labels, then, can help clarify what we already sense, promote empathy for oneself and from others, and serve as guideposts on how to proceed. They do often have an upside.

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