The Smart One, the Funny One: Why Do We Label Our Kids?

by Abby on March 2, 2012

Were you given a label growing up? In your family were you the smart one, the funny one, the cute one? My parents were pretty careful about not doing this, whether intentionally or not, so the only thing I can remember being labeled as a child was “sensitive.” And it was true—from my stomach to my feelings, I was easily ruffled.

But now as a mom, I catch myself labeling my 2 sons. Not intentionally, but consistently, even if just in my own mind. Miles, my 5yo, is the golden boy. Happy by nature, a people-pleaser like his dad, he gets along with anyone and adapts easily to any new situation he finds himself in. A new babysitter, summer camp, kindergarten—no problem for my firstborn.

Then there’s my younger son, Riley. Redheaded and bullheaded. Moody and mercurial. A sensitive stomach and a strong will. Just like his mother. From Day One, he was a clinger, a screamer, a spitter-upper. Only half-joking, I labeled him a mama’s boy, “bipolar baby,” a troublemaker. Now 3, he’s grown out of the clinginess and the spitting up, but not the temper, and has become the comedian of the family. ONE of the comedians, I should say.

I know I should watch it with the labels, especially now that my kids are getting older. I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing until one time Miles called me on it. I had picked up Riley at preschool, and he was wearing a “Great Job!” sticker on his shirt. “He was the best cleaner-upper today,” his teacher said. You could have knocked me over with a toothpick. MY kid? The one who dumps out laundry baskets for fun and flagrantly ignores me when I tell him to pick up his toys or sit down in his chair?

I told everyone we knew about this astounding turn of events—my husband, the grandparents, our babysitter, the neighbors. Until Miles groaned, “Mo-o-ommm, why do you keep SAYING that? I’m a good cleaner-upper, too!” And he is. But he is “the good kid,” so I expect that of him. But what message was I sending when I praised his brother far and wide for something Miles did naturally?

I was again shown the error of my labeling ways just the other day, this time by Riley. Miles was starting swimming lessons and, as we had before, Riley and I would watch from the sidelines. I never dreamed of signing up Riley (who would be in a different class) because I assumed there was no way he’d ever get in the pool without me or his brother. When he burst into tears upon learning that Miles would be swimming but not him, I desperately asked if there was an opening in the 3yo class. There was.

Brave little swimmer“You’re really going to go in the pool by yourself, buddy?” I asked Riley, not quite believing it. The clingy one? The mama’s boy? The one who cried so hard when I first left him with a babysitter I thought she would quit on us? He nodded. So we borrowed a swimsuit and a towel and then he was standing with the other kids waiting to be called, looking tiny and brave and wide-eyed with his little bare chest and too-big trunks.

The brave one. The funny one. The sweet one. Now that I think about it, those labels could apply to either of my boys. But why do I need to label them at all?

LINK O’ THE DAY: I really enjoyed this eye-opening post about a mom who asked her 4 sons “What’s the best thing about you?”

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Ali/Alessa March 2, 2012 at 7:46 am

I really like this post. I agree with you that parents must be careful not to label their children; however I don’t think it will scar your children unless it’s always a negative characteristic. Case in point: I was the disobedient, careless, clumsy one, who later turned into the rebellious, irresponsible, disturbed one. These negative labels stuck with me, and ultimately affected my self-esteem and own view of myself.

Right now I just label my 7mo “Mommy’s Beautiful Boy.”

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Abby March 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Awww. This breaks my heart. Your son’s so lucky to have a mom like you.

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jetts31 March 2, 2012 at 8:47 am

If I remember correctly, I was the dashing, handsome, debonair one growing up? Or I was the goofy one. I can’t remember.
I totally label our kids, unintentionally, and just like you said, they seem to prove us wrong and go against the labels we were so soon to put to them…to their benefit.

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Holly from 300 Pounds Down March 2, 2012 at 9:14 am

This is so true and something I have to try not to do as a mom of 4 kids. I actually remember being “labeled” more by my friends at school than my family . Somewhere in high school I got labeled as ‘cute’ but it was like “oh she’s so cute…” but not taken seriously. Being cute is not a bad thing I guess when you’re a teenager but it was more of a cute/airhead type of labeling . I never liked that b/c I was rarely taken seriously in my group of friends. When I left high school and went on to college and beyond my new friends never saw me that way. In fact they were the opposite. They thought I was smart! It’s amazing how a group perspective can take on a life of its own . It is so true we have to be cafeful not to to do this!

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Lou Mello March 2, 2012 at 9:28 am

As I have said before, our kids never cease to amaze us, with their personalities and the funny things they do. I guess the lesson I learned with my daughter is to always ask them what they would like to do as opposed to pre-supposing what they will actually do. My non-coordinated young daughter turned out to love dancing and actually taught ballroom dancing while in her 20’s. Not only that, but, entered a Tango contest and won it….she sent me the dvd with a warning about “the Dress” being so slinky!! So funny.
They constantly amaze us.

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Ali/Alessa March 2, 2012 at 9:45 am

That’s lovely. Good for you.

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Abby March 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm

What a great story!

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neena March 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Your youngest and my son have quite a bit in common!

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Everette Sobie July 8, 2013 at 4:06 am

I’m impressed, I must say. Truly

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Stacy October 9, 2013 at 10:36 am

I was the “cute, blonde, skinny one” now that my hair is darkening up, I’ve had 2 kids so I’m not skinny, and as an almost 30 yr old I don’t want to be “the cute one” I’m struggling to break out of thinking of myself like this. It may not scar your kids but it could lead to problems down the road when they try to fit the labels that no longer fit any more. I’m a mom, a wife, a bad housekeeper, an ok cook, and a book lover.

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