Nobody likes to be labeled. Why? Because labels are inherently limiting, even when they’re meant to be complimentary. Take for example, parents–children’s biggest cheerleaders. In an effort to build their children’s self-esteem, parents often lavish praise on them, complimenting them on their talents, accomplishments, grades, friends, or even appearance. They often tend to brag about them to their friends and family members, too. Executed judiciously, this habit can indeed help children gain confidence in their own abilities. The problem is, parents often go from complimenting a child on a job well done to labeling the child. Since I don’t have a Ph.D. in psychology (or anything else, for that matter!) and therefore don’t have a large body of research from which to draw, I’ll use my own parents as examples. My brother H had a great voice and intrinsic musical talent, often composing his own songs and playing them on various musical instruments. My parents referred to him as “their musical child”. My sister, G, they proclaimed, “always knew the words” which was akin to calling her “their smart, tone-deaf child”. At some point during every car ride of more than an hour, Mom would say “H knows the tune and G knows the words.” And what about me, you wonder? I was “the athletic one” with the occasional “Oh, and you’re musical, too.” What did we glean from all this? Well, I was athletic and maybe a little bit musical, but not smart. And H was really musical, but not smart or good in school. G was smart, but that was about it. So instead of focusing on schoolwork, H clowned around (a lot) in school and focused on his music. G focused on school and did really well, but still, 50 years later, she hates to exercise. I was motivated to keep honing my athletic skills, but, curiously, I felt the need to prove my academic prowess and became a bit obsessed by grades (and less about learning) and I never really pursued my music as much as I might have. Why should I have? After all, H was the talented musician in the family. There wasn’t room for two of us, said my prepubscent and later adolescent self. Who knows what might have turned out differently without these labels. All I know is that the labels made a difference. There are so many factors at work that it’s hard to predict the outcome of labeling your children. One child might conform to a label, while another might rebel against it. Siblings can become competitors and their relationship can be permanently altered or strained because of labels. Competition or jealousy or idolization may ensue. The bottom line is labels matter, so think before you use one on your child.
Driving home from my husband’s cancer diagnosis, we were both silent for the first five minutes until he blurted out “I’m a cancer patient.” It must have occurred to him suddenly because he said if with such urgency and authority. I guess he felt the need to label what he was experiencing, and that was what came out of his mouth. Later, during his cancer treatment, he lamented “I don’t want to be known as ‘a cancer patient’.” And who can blame him? I certainly couldn’t, but, at the same time, I know how important it is to present yourself honestly to the world. To be your authentic self, you have to be real about your struggles. You might be able to hide a cancer diagnosis, but at what price? How will your colleagues, friends, and family rally ’round you if they don’t even know what you are facing? If you believe in the power of prayer, how can you not take advantage of being on the receiving end of as many prayers as possible? And why would you want to miss out on all the testaments of love from your circle of friends? You know, like home-cooked meals, fresh-baked banana bread, homemade pies, and savory casseroles?
I will give my husband the credit he deserves here. Against counsel from some of his closest advisors and friends who were afraid admitting he was a cancer patient to his staff would make him look weak and make others hesitant to work with him, J owned up to the truth to his whole organization. He explained in detail his diagnosis and the likely treatment plan. He answered questions, and then he went on about the business of running a company. When he showed up to work for the first time with a chemo messenger bag across his chest, no one had to whisper guesses to each other as to what it was. They could just say “Nice bag”, ask him how he was feeling, or bring him some extra dark chocolate or a freshly squeezed juice for a special treat.
Even though he didn’t want to be labeled, he wanted to be understood. Isn’t that what we all want?