The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Labeling Your Kids

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13 Dec 2012

We can all remember the time as kids when we were admonished by our well-meaning parents, teachers and the other adults in our lives. And what good was it?

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This might sound familiar to you: “You are so irresponsible. What will be with you?” “You are always making a mess!” “You are always late to everything. You will never be on time!”

Parents need to know that when they start a statement with ,”You are…” whatever follows  that will follow our kids. If we tell them they are irresponsible, irresponsibility will continue to follow them. If they are late and messy, they will continue to be late and messy.

Why? Because kids who are also tagged never seem to be able to shrug off these labels. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They take on the persona of the label. It is almost as if they say to themselves,  “Well, if my parents think I am irresponsible, then I must be. I shouldn’t even try.”

If you can remember being admonished as a kid it never felt good. Most kids think, “Will I ever get it together?” or, “I can never do anything right.”

Admonishments like the ones above also offer no information to help kids better their behavior. They get stuck further into the role because they don’t have the necessary practical information to learn how to be responsible, neat and on time.

In Sefer Hachinuch it says that:  Ki ha’tov yidabeck ba’tov–good sticks to good. The more positive we are and the more focused we are on the good, the more good will come our way.

It is better if we respond to our kids in a way that is encouraging, positive and gives them some practical information on how to improve their behavior.

“Oh no! You lost your keys! You will figure out how to be responsible for your keys. You will find a safe place to put them so that this does not happen again.”

This flips the negative statement into a more positive one. A child can then infer, “Oh, being responsible means finding a safe place for my keys. My mother thinks I can do this.”

Some more examples of this:

“There are toys all over this room. It is almost Shabbat. I know you will remember next time that toys need to be put away before another one is taken out.”

“The bus is gone! You will figure out how to manage your time. You will figure out what time you need to wake up and set your alarm clock so that you are on time to catch the bus.”

“Daddy left for shul without because you were not ready. That is too bad. Next time you will remember to get dressed and stop reading your book when he tells you.”

It can be hard to remember this in the heat of the moment, but if you can speak in a more positive, informative way, there will be less of those moments.

Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP, works as a Parent Educator for Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau facilitating How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk workshops as well as workshops based on Siblings Without Rivalry. Adina also runs

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