No Negative Labels: We Can Help Improve Our Children’s Behavior

03 May 2023

“Teach your child according to his ways.” – Proverbs

“No child is hopeless….Any child who is told that he is a failure is deprived of his dignity and loses respect for himself.” – Alfred Adler

Anyone who has children has fallen into the trap of labeling children and placing them in roles. Somehow it gives us a sense of control over children, to have them figure it out. She is the “stubborn one”, “he is bossy “ “that one is so slow”, “forget about him he will always be disorganized”.

We need to remember though that, every character trait has positive and negative aspect to it. If we only focus on the negative,  even in a joking way,  we reinforce the negative behavior and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There are many people who were called “irresponsible” or “stubborn” when they were growing up. This was reinforced in their actions and they began to internalize this view of themselves. The more they were called irresponsible, the more irresponsible or stubborn they acted. They became their label.

But, what can we do? How can we stop talking about children in negative ways? And can we actually change a child’s behavior just by how we view and talk to them?

Here are 9 ways we can do just that:

1. There are no “dumb” children:

This story has not been confirmed as true, but has a lot of wisdom to it:

A Chicago public school teacher … was confronted by a class of sixth- graders who were so clueless and intractable that she suspected many of them had learning disabilities.

One day, while the principal was off the premises, she broke a hard and fast rule and snuck a look in the file where student details, IQ scores and other relevant data were kept. She was amazed … most of her students had IQs in the high 120s and 130s – near genius level. One of the worst offenders had an IQ of 145. After some soul searching, Mrs. Daugherty concluded that it was her fault that these brilliant minds had resorted to unruly behavior … she blamed herself for boring them into misbehavior. She began bringing in difficult assignments. She upped the amount of homework and inflicted stern punishments for misbehavior. By the end of the semester, her class was one of the best behaved and the most accomplished in the entire sixth grade. Impressed, and stunned, her principal asked her how she had achieved this amazing turn around. Haltingly, she confessed that she had looked at the IQ files and she had changed her approach to teaching the class. The principal pursed his lips, smiled, and told her not to worry about it. All’s well that ends well, he told her. “Oh, by the way,” he whispered as she turned to retreat to her classroom, “I think you should know: those numbers next to the kids’ names? It’s not their IQ scores. It’s their locker numbers.”

The story might not be exactly true, but the message is clear. The way we treat children impacts their self-image. If we treat a child as being being “dumb” they will act that way. If we treat them as “smart” they can act that way too.

That means we need to:

2. Find a positive label:

The first thing that we need to is to start viewing our children differently. As we mentioned above, every trait has both a positive and negative side to it. Here are some examples:

Defiant……. Courageous, bold
Impulsive… Eager, Enthusiastic
Selfish/Greedy…Speaks out their needs, needy
Hyper………. High Energy
Quiet/Shy… Thoughtful, inner-directed
Clingy………. Connected, bonded
Sore Loser/Tattletale Justice seeker
Stubborn…. Focused, committed, determined
Messy………… Creative
Talks all the time/Big Mouth…Great relater, expressive
Can’t sit still… Energetic
Procrastinator/Slow moving… Deliberate, cautious, visionary
Irresponsible…Needs to be reminded
Silly…Fun loving
Bossy…Future Leader

And yes, just by thinking of our child in this “new” way, can impact their behavior. It certainly can help us see the child in a positive light.

3. Start reinforcing the behavior using this positive label:

Now that we are viewing our children differently,  we want to let them know about it:

For example:

Children Positive Label
Stubborn: “You are so stubborn; you never let anyone have a turn with the ball.” “You were so determined to get that basket you couldn’t give up the ball until you did it. Now you can share.”

There is a much more positive tone to this type of interaction. This alone can start changing our child’s behavior.  Another benefit, we become less frustrated with children when we have an overall positive and realistic view of the.

4. Look for opportunities to give a child a new picture of himself:

Now it gets a bit tricky. We need to notice their behavior and comment on it- putting a more positive spin to it.

IMPULSIVE: “You waited until after we finished playing and asked instead of taking your favorite toy and the bubbles.”

IRRESPONSIBLE: “You read this whole paragraph and sounded out the hard words. Then you told me your favorite part of the story.”

SELFISH: “You let Lexi go first; you waited until she was finished and then went on the swings.”

SLOW MOVING: “You came to the ball area right when I called.”

5. Put children in situations where they can see themselves differently:

We now need to be proactive. In situations where we wouldn’t even dream of asking our children to help out, we want to ask them to help out. We want to show them that they can act in an appropriate manner.

GREEDY : “Michael, you know how to give out dessert fairly. Make sure everyone in our group gets one.”

IRRESPONSIBLE: “Can you take this very important note to your teacher for me?”

SHY: “Sara, could you introduce Shana to the new neighbor.”

6. Let the child overhear you say something positive about him

MESSY: You to grandparent: “We spent today organizing Sharon’s book bag. She had some great ideas of where to keep her pencil and crayons so they will be easily accessible.”

BIG MOUTH: You to spouse: “We learned about taking turns today. Kayla knew to wait quietly every time it was my turn to speak.”

7. Model the behavior you would like to see:

Now is a great opportunity to talk about yourself and model appropriate behavior:

SILLY: “I was at a meeting today with all my colleagues. I really had a good joke to tell, but I saw that they really needed to get work done today, so I kept my joke to myself. I said to myself, I don’t think this is a good time for jokes.”

PROCRASTINATOR: “I really am not in the mood to write this report, but I better just do it and get it over with, then I can do something I really like and I won’t have to worry.”

8. Remind children of past accomplishments:

This is another great way to build children up and give them a new picture of themselves:

FEARFUL: “Remember the time you hurt yourself  and you just got up and brushed yourself off?”(If other children are putting him/her in a role of fearful, you can also say to them, “you might think he is scared but I remember the time the fire alarm went off and he knew exactly what to do.”)

BOSSY: “Remember the time that you were in charge of the playdoh and you let everyone choose the color they wanted?”

9. If child behaves according to his old label, state your expectations:

We should admonish our children when they are behaving badly. However, its best if we don’t call them names (especially their negative label). We want to just focus on what they should do to improve their behavior:

SORE LOSER: “When we play GO FISH, I know it hurts to lose, but when you do I expect my children to be gracious to the winners.”

SELFISH: “It is annoying to have people in your way, but I expect you to say ‘excuse me’ and wait until they move away. “

It is not easy to change our perspective in this way and help our children improve their behavior. However, the rewards are great. There is a great Yiddish saying, Tracht Gut Vet Zein- Think good and it will be good.

Adapted from “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.