29/10/2012 12:20 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Naughty, Sporty, Arty? Why We Must Stop Labelling Our Children

Why I must stop labelling my children Rex

When someone asks about my children, I always find myself describing them a certain way. There's the older girl who has always been the 'clever' one; possibly helped by the fact that neither of her siblings are old enough to read or write yet.

Then there is the middle 'crazy' girl. She fits this role well as last week she broke her arm whilst doing the hokey cokey.

Finally their little brother is known as the 'sporty' one. I know this is mostly because my extended family has dreams of him playing rugby for Wales one day. Any interest at all in a ball is met with glee, even though at the moment he cuddles it more than kicks it.

In fact when I look at the recent past, whenever I give my children a label, more often than not they turn around and do the exact opposite.

Take last month for example. I was busy telling everyone how much my eldest was into ballet and merrily labelled her a ballerina. We went along to one class, she absolutely hated it and has never been back since.

The 'crazy' middle daughter is actually really sensitive as well. She is the one who will get really upset if someone is not being kind and is also just as likely to have her head in a book.

It has got me thinking about whether there is in fact anything negative about labelling children in this way

Father of two Steve remembers being pigeon holed as a child. "I was always really clumsy and would fall over when we were doing PE and people would laugh. The result was I didn't think I was any good at it so I stopped trying."

I was always labelled a 'sporty' child. But once I actually came third in an art competition, laughed off as a fluke. Who knows maybe if I'd have been encouraged more in the art world I could have been the next Tracey Emin.

So while it might not feel detrimental to give children positive labels like 'sporty', 'musical' or 'clever'', there can be repercussions.

"It gives children no room for latitude and it might stop a child exploring something as they assume it is not for them," explains psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley, a member of the British Psychological Society.


Calling someone sporty is a narrow label. It might in fact mean they have good hand to eye co-ordination, a skill which could as easily be transferred to graphic design as sport.


An area where I have been known to occasionally label my children is around negative behaviour. I've called my little boy the 'naughty one' as he often hits his sisters. Of course with hindsight I can see this is because he isn't yet two and is still learning what is acceptable behaviour in the world.

Mother of two, Jess from Cardiff, agrees that labelling this kind of behaviour can cause issues and often result in a self fulfilling prophecy. "I've got into the habit of calling my youngest son the terror," she explains.

"I do think he is naughtier than his brother but sometimes I wonder if he acts in a certain way because that is what is expected of him."

Dr Wheatley agrees: "If you continually berate a child, however young they are, there is a tipping point when they come to believe in their behaviour. It's as if they know there is so much ground to be made up to ever not be 'bad' that it is just easier to act in a certain way."

Instead Wheatley suggests describing the 'state' and not the 'trait'. So for example 'hitting is naughty' and not 'you are naughty'.

So I'm going to stop this labelling business I promise, or at the very least do less of it.

If I'm not careful one of these days my daughter is going to turn around and call me the 'judgemental' one. Well she is the 'clever' one after all.

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