Labels are for food. Not kids.

I have a thing about labels. Well, several things, actually.

Not the kind on fancy clothes so much. (Though occasionally purses.) Not cars so much, either, though there’s probably an inherited tendency there on my dad’s side of the family.

Dogs. Yes. I love almost all of them but choose to live with Newfies.

Another set of labels that I’ve found helpful, through the years, at describing and interpreting human behavior (by which I mean, mostly, my own) is the Enneagram Personality Type perspective.

Short course: nine personality types, numbered, conveniently, one through nine, arranged graphically in a clockwise circle with one at the top. Each person will have a basic type, in my case four. Then we have wing types which means we tend more in the direction of the folks on one side of us than the other. Again, in my case, five which means I’m more like the fives than the threes, usually.

There’s an old story my Enneagram teachers used to tell about all the nine types of folks going down by the river on a picnic. The ones, who tend to be perfectionists, are trying to even out the river banks and get it to run straight. The twos, predictably, are running all over with their sunscreen and bandaids, helping the rest of the gang…and so it goes on until we come to the fives who are wandering around alphabetizing the bugs rather like Adam in the Garden.

I relate. I think names matter. A lot.

Labels, on the other hand, make me uneasy. At least the unconscious, over-used ones.

If you’ve been around for a while, or read my Grandmothers Are In Charge Of Hope, you’ve heard me tell the story about growing up with a mom who spent a lot of time explaining to people that I was the smart kid and my sister was the artistic kid.

She was doing the best she knew how to do. Perhaps trying to balance our frequent moves with simple introductions so we would feel understood, which is a new thought that came to me just now. It makes sense.

In any event, I was 40 years old before it occurred to me that it was possible to be both smart and artistic!

Life is better outside the box! Kind of like the Asian chef with a Brittish accent cooking fancy French food on Chopped today…

Our cultural insistence on labels, however, does not seem to go away.

Lately it’s business cards and domain names and Facebook groups. (Coming soon!)

All of which reminds me of the first cards I designed, just after we moved back to Atlanta and I was beginning my counseling practice. There didn’t seem to be a simple, succinct choice. So I went the other direction.

Name and degrees. Check. Address and phone number. Yep.

Then, a list rather than one label.

Parent & Teacher education. Pre-marital counseling. Weddings. Retreats. Individuals. Couples. Families. Stories: sacred and otherwise. Questions that make all the difference.

I can’t help but notice that I’d claim most of that list still today, though I haven’t done weddings so much lately. But, who knows?

Clearly, some things would need to be added. Quilts. Gardens. Newfoundland rescue. The Fiercely Compassionate Grandmother. (Which is, by the way, one I can totally live with!)

Bringing us to another of my things about labels.

Labels, honest ones, are for food, including the stuff my dogs eat. And washing instructions. And household cleaners.

They’re usually not all that helpful to kids. Labeling, no matter how well intended, essentially compares one kid to another. (And often to different aspects of themselves!) In comparisons, somebody wins and somebody loses which often results in social circles and school rooms and Scout troops in which kids learn to bully others or respond like victims themselves.

We don’t seem to need more of that!

What we do need are kind, confident kids who are learning to value those who are unique in different ways.  And we help them learn by modeling. Here’s a fictional example that could be true-ish.

You’re hanging out with your two fabulous, adorable, practically perfect grandkids. Just for fun, let’s name them Martha and Mary. Martha wants to help you fix lunch. Mary is deeply absorbed in something she’s been doing all morning. You, in your wisdom and sensitivity to comparisons, thank Martha for all her help with lunch while nobly resisting the pressure of endless generations to add something snarky about being a good little girl.  Then, in a separate conversation, you ask Mary what she’s been so absorbed in and wonder, sincerely, if she would share what interests her about it. Just like that, you’ve managed to value each of them for being who and where she is at the moment. There’s some precedent for this train of thought!

Which is just as well because each of them will probably be some whole other place five minutes from now and it will be time to do it all again!

In the meantime, let’s all hold onto our consciousness and stick together! Somebody out there is bound to compare us to the mythical “Way we’ve always done it” family who probably only existed on TV and we’re going to be glad of some friends standing with us!


2 comments on “Labels are for food. Not kids.”

  1. Nice Sue! I think many parents make comments like your Mom did, really not understanding the power and the long shadow of these labels that come across to a child as facts rather than just one person’s perspective or opinion.

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Sue Boardman, Certified Intentional Creativity®
Color of Woman Teacher & Coach