Let’s say you are responsible for putting together an event – a dinner party, a family gathering, a church fundraiser, a client meeting, a mini-conference… go ahead, pick something that works for you.
You are pretty pumped up about being responsible for the task. You are also a little nervous about how it will all turn out.
One day, while you are slogging your butt off and figuring out the nitty-gritty details, you walk into your co-event-planners and overhear them muttering – “She’s so bossy” (or “He’s such a dictator”) before they suddenly realize you’re in the room and change the topic.
You are pretty sure they were talking about you.
What would your attitude be going forward? Would you be as pumped up about it as before? Would you have second thoughts about the way you are going about handling the responsibility? Maybe scale down some of your grand plans a little?
Or maybe you would drive people a little harder just to prove a point?
Now let’s flip that situation a bit… what if you had overheard — “She (or He) is so cool and really knows how to get things done”.
What would your attitude be now as you move ahead with the project?
Essentially “Bossy” and “Dictator” mean the same thing — someone who is trying to get things done. Yet, because of the negative connotation these labels have, they leave a sour taste in your mouth, and undermine your ability to stay enthusiastic about the project anymore.
Now let’s step out of this hypothetical scenario and look into our homes.
How many times in a day do we label our kids in not so flattering ways?
“Gosh, just look at Janice… she’s got chocolate all over herself! What am I going to do with this messy child!”
“Billy left a marker on the sofa with the cap off! Look at that stain! What an irresponsible kid!”
“I was late to office again! Kate’s such a slow-poke… I wonder when that kid will learn the value of time!”
And on and on I could go. Some of this is not meant to be “labels” but they stick nevertheless – if nowhere else, then in the mind of the child who overheard it.
We don’t intend to be mean. We don’t intend to scar our children. And most often, we don’t even realize we are doing it.
Yet, it can have a huge impact on your child’s behavior for the rest of the day, and if a label sticks, then possibly the rest of his/her life!
Now, going back to that hypothetical event planning story, from the co-event-planners perspective – if they perceive you as “bossy” or a “dictator” they are less likely to feel motivated to work with you to put together a great event. On the other hand, if they think you really are a “leader” who can get this event done in a spectacular manner, chances are they will be clamoring to help you get there.
It is the same thing with us parents.
How we behave with our kids depends on what labels we see them through. If we look at them through the lens of negative labels, our response to their actions is likely to be more critical. When we look at them through the lens of positive labels, we are in a better position to be their champion, their cheer leaders.
In short, what we say matters — not just what we say to our kids, but what we say about them to others… and to ourselves. The labels we choose, either consciously or by default, can make a huge impact on how we parent and how our kids perceive themselves.
For this week, let’s take a look at labels and work on developing some positive ones for our kids.
The following exercise is inspired by the chapter “A Different Point of View” from the book Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Have you read it? If not, I highly recommend the book, especially if you have a child that you view as “difficult”, “strong-willed” or “stubborn”. This book has had a huge impact on me and has been such an eye-opener, helping me a great deal in the way I view my child.
You don’t need to have read the book to participate in this week’s exercise though… I’ll assume you have not read the book and explain the parts relevant to this exercise. Of course, it goes without saying, the book has a heck of a lot more than what I can cover in one article and I’ll just be focusing on the “labels” part of it.
The author points out in the book that the labels we give our children can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Children learn who they are from others in their lives, most notably the parents. The labels we use convey to our children our view of them and the expectations we have of them, and they will act to those expectations irrespective of whether they are positive or negative.
Negative labels are not easy for the parents either. When parents think of their children through these negative labels, we feel
- Fear about how the kids will turn out
- Confusion about what we ought to do to “fix” the situation
- Resentment towards the child for not meeting the standard societal expectations
- Shame that we somehow screwed up
- Embarrassment in the presence of others for our child’s behavior
- Exhaustion of having to deal with it day in and day out
- Anger that the situation turned out the way it did
So what can we do?
For starters, we can redesign those labels with a positive vision.
When kids overhear being referred to in positive ways, they will respond positively.
When we think of our kids in a positive way, we are better equipped to handle the situations life throws at us.
And that kicks into motion a nice little positive feedback cycle.
So, this week’s exercise is simple.
Grab a piece of paper, or use the comments section below to write down all the words that you can think of that describe the crazy, obnoxious things your children do that drive you crazy.
Next, pull from your memory your favorite image of your child. Hold on to that image as you look through the list of lousy labels and discover the hidden potential of your child masked by the negativity of the label. And start listing them next to (or below) your other list..
Here is my list –
|Old Negative Labels||New Exciting Labels|
|Bossy||Leader, takes initiative|
|Demanding||Decisive, knows what she wants|
|Argumentative||Good negotiator, logical reasoner|
|Loud||Bubbly, energetic, full of life|
|Nosy||Curious, logical reasoner|
|Aggressive||Stands up for her beliefs|
|Nit-picky||Meticulous, knows what she wants|
As you can see (and as I felt when I had made the list the first time), everything that annoys us in the kids is an amazing positive characteristic that we would love to see in them as adults.
And trust me, this makes a huge difference. My daughter is just 5 and boy, can she boss around. I used to be annoyed/irritated when she would insist on me doing something in a particular way that seemed totally ridiculous to me. And when I watched her bossing over her softer-mannered friends, I used to worry that she will have no friends if she keeps bossing them so much. And a part of me felt guilty because, well, she gets it from me (multiplied by what she inherited from my husband).
When I started seeing her through the new lens that she is capable of good leadership skills, that she is decisive and knows what she wants, it really changed my perspective. I feel proud of her now instead of being embarrassed or worried. I have a much clearer view of my role as a parent as I think of how to hone these positive skills, than when I fretted about how to break the negative traits. My job now is to groom her to be a leader that she naturally is, to show her how to channel this trait to get the best results, how to communicate so she can inspire instead of intimidate and generally, show her how amazing she really is!
I am now sailing with the winds, instead of against them.
Parenting seems a lot more like fun than a chore.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take the next 2-minutes (or maybe a little more this week) to put together your list. Seriously, even if you are skeptical, try it. When you list out the negative labels, you’ll be amazed at how many negative feelings you harbor against your kids (don’t worry, you are not alone — most of us do, and it’s often unintentional). And as you work through the positive labels, you’ll be even more amazed at the great potential your kids have!
As always, I urge you to actually put it down in writing because it helps your brain be a lot more effective than if you were to just hold the thoughts in your head as you work through them (a proven fact – check out the book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long). So, grab a sheet of paper to do it the old fashioned way, or post it in the comments section below (if you are worried about privacy, just use a “pen” name). If you are stuck trying to come up with a good positive label, let us know and we will all work together to come up with some positive twists and you can choose the ones that work the best for you.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the next week, let’s focus on two simple things –
- Pay attention to the labels we unintentionally use when we talk/think about our kids, and
- Make a conscious attempt to start thinking of our kids with the positive labels
And special brownie points to anyone who finds ways to use those positive labels not just in conversations about their kids, but even in conversations with their kids!