How Children Live Up to the Labels Parents Give Them |

How Children Live Up to the Labels Parents Give Them

“He’s a genius at math!” 

“Oh, she’s shy. Give her some time to warm up.” 

“Hey! That was a great shot! You’re really good at basketball!” 

“You’re too skinny. Eat some more and you’ll fit better into these clothes soon.”

I am sure you heard some of these statements said to you or someone else at some point in your life. How did you feel when you heard them? Or did you notice how someone else reacted? Or do you find yourself making some of these statements?

Labeling another person with a certain trait often enough can start making that person believe that about him/herself. Often, we have been given labels by our parents, siblings, other family members, classmates, colleagues, or even spouses. Can you think of any that stuck with you until this day? I was often told that I was artistic, for example, or a generally very quiet person. As a grown woman, I still strongly believe in those labels about myself and might find myself manifesting it continuously. Actually, I have changed quite a bit - I no longer engage in artistic ventures, nor am I quiet all the time; I express myself quite often and talk at length in most situations. Perhaps I started doing that because I wanted to break the “quiet” persona.

When Parents Label their Children

Now as a parent, think about how we label our kids. Oftentimes, we don’t know that we’re doing it. Especially, when we get angry with our child or are having a proud moment. We might say things like:

“Why do you always cry about little things? You’re too sensitive!” 

“Wow! You’re a star! Look at you getting an ‘A’ on this science test. You’re definitely going to be a scientist someday!”

Our children take our word as law. What we say to them becomes the voices inside their heads. It’s a hard truth to swallow, however, that is the amanah or trust and responsibility of parenting that Allah gave us - to raise these children in a way that is pleasing to Him. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, provided guidance with regards to taking care of our families’ needs and upbringing. Abdullah ibn Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah said:

“Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them. A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is responsible for them. The servant of a man is a guardian of the property of his master and he is responsible for it. No doubt, every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock.”

(Sahih al-Bukhari, 7138 and Sahih Muslim, 1829)

How Children Are Affected by Labels

Once children view themselves a certain way, they begin to act that way more. In turn, the adults and their peers will continue to label them that way. Moreover, these labels cause children to lose the potential to be something else or to even try new things. For example, your child may be a “mathematical genius,” but he may also have a strong artistic inclination. Once he has believed he is really good at math, then he may not try to explore his artistic abilities in painting. 

Although I am no longer a quiet person, I had been one because I demonstrated a pattern of behaviour that made people label me as such for a long time. And surely you may have changed over the years as well. Our children also deserve the space to change from who they are now to something else later. They may show a pattern of behaviour right now, like sensitivity, being a picky eater, bossiness, or even shyness, but their later life experiences may completely change them. Humans are ever-changing individuals, and they need the space to be able to explore different activities and interests. When children are given the opportunity to explore different avenues, they feel they can take risks or work hard at something they may be interested in. 

Steps to Take to Avoid Labeling

Here are three suggestions about steps you can take to avoid labeling.

1.  Choose your words wisely.

If you find yourself labeling your children with a certain characteristic, it’s not too late to change that. Note the following:

  • If this new label is in the beginning stages, then think before you speak and talk about the good or bad actions in an encouraging or supportive manner.
  • If you feel that your child now consistently lives up to that label, have a conversation with him/her acknowledging that it was your mistake. For example, if you have called them a “troublemaker,” you can explain that they really are just exploring their willingness to go beyond the boundaries set for them or have extra energy they would like to expend. That this behavior is not who they are and can be changed.
  • You can also talk about the topic of labels and how both of you can work towards avoiding such expressions. Using children’s books or role play on the topic can be helpful tools for this task. 
  • We remind our children about how the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, told us how believers should not be in a habit of insulting others or being vulgar through this hadith: 

“The believer does not insult others, he does not curse others, he is not vulgar, and he is not shameless.” 

(Sunan al-Tirmidhi) 

  • It is also important to talk in detail  about how Allah admonishes us in the Qur’an for ridiculing others and for using offensive nicknames with each other: 

“O believers! Do not let some ˹men˺ ridicule others, they may be better than them, nor let ˹some˺ women ridicule other women, they may be better than them. Do not defame one another, nor call each other by offensive nicknames. How evil it is to act rebelliously after having faith! And whoever does not repent, it is they who are the ˹true˺ wrongdoers.” 

(Surah Al-Hujarat, 49:11)

Regarding these verses, Ibn Kathir explains: Ibn Kathir said regarding these verses, 

“Allah the Exalted forbids scoffing at people, which implies humiliating and belittling them. In the Sahih, it is recorded that the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘Arrogance is refusing the truth and belittling people. (In another version) and despising people.’ It is forbidden to scoff at and belittle people, for the injured party could be more honored and dearer to Allah, the Exalted, than those who ridicule and belittle them… This prohibition is for men and women. The statement of Allah the Exalted, ‘Nor defame yourselves,’ forbids defaming each other. He among men who is a slanderer, and a backbiter, is cursed and condemned as Allah states, ‘Woe to every Humazah, Lumazah (backbiter, slanderer) (104:1). Hamz is defamation by action, while Lamz is by words…” 

(Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

2.  Reframe the label.

You need to try labeling the action the child is demonstrating rather than it being a demonstration of their personality. For example, instead of saying, “You are a helpful child” or “She’s very shy,” you can say, “You are being helpful,” or “It takes a little while for you to feel comfortable with new people,” or “you are talkative with people you know well.”

Here are more examples how we can reframe other common labels we give our children:

  • “Whiner” or “Cry-baby”- instead use “tenderhearted”
  • “Selfish” - instead use “aware of your feelings”
  • “Picky" -  instead use “it's okay if you don't want to try it this time”

3.  Explain your feelings or expectations.

Instead of saying your child is “messy”, your true motivation behind that statement is that you want your child to clean up after him/herself whenever they are done with a task. In those moments when your first instinct might be berating your child, instead you can say, “I expect you to clean up after yourself, just as everyone else in this family is expected to.” Again, speaking about their actions is key, not their personhood.

An Important Note

There are times when labeling is important. Perhaps the pattern of behaviour your child is displaying may be an insight into learning disabilities that require special care for their education needs, or a traumatic event(s) may have happened to him/her and needs special attention to help resolve the issue.

We must consistently be mindful about how we speak to our children in general. It may be hard, however, some actions require more effort for a bigger reward from Allah. This is tarbiyah, intentional and careful upbringing of our children. And how we label our children’s actions throughout their lives has a big impact on their upbringing as wholesome Muslims.

Further Reading

Avoid labeling your child

The effects of labelling children

The Effects of Labeling in Education - Buffalo Hearing & Speech Center

Freeing your Children from Disabling Labels

Sumayya Khan is a homeschooling mother of two and a teacher. She has worked with several Islamic schools and organizations in the last 10 years. She is currently teaching Literature online with Dawanet and studying the Qur’an through Al-Huda Institute. In her free time, she loves to spend time with her family and friends, play sports, enjoy nature, and read books. She currently resides with her family in Toronto, Canada. 

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