Beware of Labels, Even Good Ones

When people ask me if I’m a runner, I’m reluctant to say, “Yes,” even though I do run at least three times a week, and I’m usually training for a half marathon or a triathlon. I’m comfortable telling people I run, but I’m intimidated by the thought of being labeled a “runner.”

In my mind, runners run far and fast and look like they’ve just stepped off the cover of Women’s Running Magazine. If people perceive me as a  runner, I fear they’ll think less of me if they know my average run is four miles and I barely break 10 minute miles. But if they simply know I sometimes run, there is less pressure to live up to. Labels, both good and bad, come with expectations. And, while those expectations can be beneficial at times, they can also create unnecessary stress. This same phenomenon is true when we label kids.

Take a “positive” label for instance, like such a smart girl. A bright, straight A student may enjoy the admiration that’s attached to a characterization like this, but what happens when she gets a D on her first test or when schoolwork starts to feel challenging? For kids who feel even partially defined by their performance based labels, setbacks can knock them completely off their rockers. It’s not uncommon to hear huge doubt setting with comments like, “I made a D: I must be Dumb.” or “School isn’t as easy for me this year…maybe I wasn’t so smart after all.”

But imagine what might happen if that same child is raised to believe she is incredibly special, not for what she does but for who she is. And that she is full of potential. And that she is loved– not just by her parents but also by her Heavenly Father who created her. What if that same child was taught that none of us are perfect (nope, not even Mom or Dad), but through the unique strengths and gifts that God gives us, we are able to overcome our mistakes and our weaknesses?

Kids who know that they are loved and valued are better equipped to defeat challenges in their lives and are less susceptible to the influence of labels. As parents, we can help our children through tough situations by reassuring them of our love and our confidence in them simply by active listening.

For Example

Here’s how that might sound between a parent and third grader who brings a failed spelling test home from school. Listen to how Mom connects with her daughter and helps her feel supported while guiding her to a solution.

Sally (close to tears): “I’m so dumb! I can’t believe I failed my spelling test today!”

Mom (showing empathy): “Oh, Sally! It hurts to do poorly on a test. And you studied hard for that one… no wonder you sound so disappointed.”

Sally (wrinkling her face in frustration): “I just don’t get it!”

Mom (gently): “It really surprised you, huh? I’m surprised, too. You usually do great on spelling tests. How would you like to take a look at it together and figure out what went wrong?

Sally (relaxing a bit): “Yeah, ok.”

Mom: “Let’s get a snack first and recharge that brain of yours. The good news is that there is lots to learn from making mistakes, and what you learn can help you even more on future tests!”


Sally tried to label herself as dumb because she did poorly on her test. Instead of trying to convince her daughter that she isn’t dumb, Mom connected at a deeper level to help her feel valued and loved. Sally moved from feeling defeated to empowered, and she left the labels in the dust.

As you go through your day, I challenge you to listen for labels that are placed on people, and then watch closely. Their reactions may surprise you.

When I need a little reassurance that God’s impression of me is all that matters, I love to listen to Francesca Batastelli’s He Knows My Name. What an awesome reminder of God’s love for us!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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