Throwing out the Labels

Anybody who has grown up in the West Indies knows we're champions at labelling. For instance, everybody has a nickname: the lanky man swaggering down the sidewalk may turn his head if someone shouts out, "Ay, Sprat!"; the kid with the big ears will, at some point, have to come up with a witty retort to the name "Trophy Head", just as women with generous posteriors will roll their eyes at being called everything from "Lobster" (all the meat in the tail) to "Clock" (they're "tick, tick tick"). I even met one guy who turned his label, "Miserable", into a tattoo. You can't make this stuff up.

Nicknames are one thing. Labels? Something else entirely - and I'm really not a fan. Here's why:


  1. Labels are simplistic. Even if the label is flattering on the surface - take "Beauty Queen", for example, there's no way the full measure of a beautiful woman is skin deep. (Of course, the label can also be intended to offend, suggesting perhaps, that the person is superficial or primarily concerened about image).

  2. Labels infer that someone outside of yourself gets to determine your capabilities or limits. Now, while this isn't necessarily so (the "Beauty Queen" may have every confidence in her brain power as well as her beauty), labels, if used often enough, can begin to change the perception of the person. And if that person is a little person, not quite understanding the ways of the world and their place in it just yet, labels can be more dangerous than ever.

Back when my career was a high priority, I once visited a primary school to do some casting for a film production. The school was very professional; everything was arranged perfectly, parents were informed I was coming to take photos. As I waited for the kids to arrive, I noticed a child who had obviously been put of of class, sitting on the floor looking positively defeated. When a teacher approached her to ask what she did now, the child glowered, said nothing, looked away. And I remember thinking to myself, "Self, I have no idea what this kid did to warrant her being expelled from her class, but I do know that's not the way to deal with it."


The teacher that labelled her a troublemaker with that one little word, "now", had no way of knowing if the child was right or wrong, whether she had ben treated unfairly or not, yet she was willing to draw a conclusion simply based on the fact that an authority figure saw it fit to banish her from the class. This is typical in an authoritatian setup, which of course is what the mainstream education system is, in the West Indies and in many other countries. It was established over two centuries ago to meet the labour needs of the Industrial Revolution and unfortunately, it hasn't really evolved to meet the needs of new eras, least of all the one we live in now - or the one our children will inhabit in the future. But I digress.

One common example of labelling, especially with regard to children, is the use of the word "bad", or "naughty". Pretty innocuous, right? Consider this: a friend of mine happened to witness a mother trying to get her two-year-old to pose for a passport photo. Except the kid was being made to stand on a rickety chair, by himself, while the expressionless photographer twiddled her thumbs and the mother ranted and raved at the child to "behave".

"Excuse me," said my friend, addressing the mother, "but your child is afraid. Don't you think you should calm him down?"

"He's not afraid. He's just being naughty. He's a bad boy."

Trying not to raise her voice, my friend retorted, "He's not bad. You're bad with him."

"Go ahead," quipped the mother, waving my friend in the direction of her screaming child. "You try."

My friend approached the terrified little boy, who was only too happy to have someone hold and comfort him, even if it was a total stranger. Then my friend started talking to him, in a gentle voice: "There's nothing to be afraid of, that lady only wants to take your picture. She doesn't look so bad, does she?" The little boy shook his head. "Would you prefer to sit on the chair rather than stand?" my friend asked. He nodded. In less than two minutes, the little boy was calm, reassured and willing to cooperate. "I just don't get some people," my friend told me afterwards. "When a child is upset, or does something the adult doesn't like, and the adult gets more upset, all it does it make everybody feel worse. When you play, it's so much better. Everybody's happy."

I think about this...about parents who call their toddlers "naughty" for doing things that seem perfectly plausible to drawing on the wall. To them, it's art. You liked it when they did it on paper, or on the sidewalk, or on the blackboard. What makes walls off limits? It's important to see things from their point of view. And it's even more important to stay away from the labels, because they're hurtful and belittling. And they're everywhere. This morning, my son and I decided to get into the Christmas spirit by singing a few carols - and I had to stop myself dead in my tracks as I launched off into Santa Claus is coming to town. It's so outdated, so disrespectful to children:

"You better watch out / You better not cry / Better not pout...He's making a list / And checking it twice / Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice...He sees you when you're sleeping / He knows when you're awake / He knows if you've been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake!"

You may think I'm overreacting, but anyone else get the feeling that Santa's like Big Brother? The intimidation tactics are ruthless and quite fitting, I suppose, for a song that was first performed in 1934. But we're in the twenty-first century, now folks. Let's reassess. Didn't Shakespeare, one of the greatest observers of human nature, say (in "Hamlet"), "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"? I'm the first one to call my son out on behaviour I think is unkind, selfish or otherwise hurtful. But I never label him "naughty" or "bad", because that infers that there's something wrong with him, rather than with the action or the behaviour. Going the "bad" route - along with the accompanying display of dissatisfaction (withdrawing affection or approval, etc.) - achieves the opposite effect because now the kid (or at least my kid) wants to test the waters. He's going for the big reaction. Much better to sit down with him and calmly explain the specifics of what was inconsiderate about what he did and how it affected everyone else. It gives him the autonomy he deserves and - bonus! - it usually results in the behaviour I was seeking to inspire. Here's an example - a few days ago, when my son was with his grandmother, he deliberately threw over a cup of water - for the second time. This is the talk we had afterwards:

"J, why did you throw down the water?"

"Because I wanted to."

"Okay, but that meant that Nana had to clean it up for two days in a row now and it's hard for her to get down that low and wipe it up. (What he did; how it affected someone else). Remember how she hurt her knee? (Inspires compassion). So you're making it difficult for Nana. And you're a big boy! You know how to use glasses without any spills! (Praise and encouragement). Plus, water can destroy photographs, so if you keep throwing the water next to the picture frames, there's a chance it'll seep in and you may not be able to see who's in the pictures. (Factual; new perspective). Maybe the next time you want to throw over the water, you can do it outside with your cups and buckets and play in the hose for a little while." (Opportunity for fun; water play is one of his favourite things).

The water has stayed in his cup ever since, without any cajoling or consequences. It's stayed in the cup because my son has chosen to keep it there.

Of course, it's hard to think on your feet when a child does something unexpected. But it's really important to not defer to the old script when we're at a loss for words. And according to my superhero friend who rescued the passport picture kid, "When in doubt, play!" How many kids of our grandparents' generation, our parents' generation, even our generation, grew up with a warped sense of self because they were called "bad" or "lazy" or "stupid" or "fat" or "ugly"? In a society where name-calling and labelling is the easy way out, we must be mindful of the words we use. Clyde Harvey, in reference to "the discourses about our socio-political life", puts it this way:

"Whenever I observe violent, disruptive behaviour on the streets or view it on the television, whether it happens in our underproviliged areas or in the hotspot to which Parliament itself is sometimes reduced, such behaviour in word or deed speak of a lack of respect for self as well as deep wounds in individuals and groups."

Of course children need boundaries. But they also need respect. Fr. Harvey continues:

"People love to speak about how difficult our young people are. They are just different. They are certainly different from my generation. I suspect that they are also different from you. See the mystery that is each one of them. Reverence them even as you seek to engage them."


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