The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 31, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Negative labels hurt kids' growth

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — The baby was in his highchair, playing with a sippy cup of milk. He flipped and spun it over and over until its engineered promises were finally broken and a few drops of milk spilled from the lid.

Quickly, he stopped his game and became contemplative. He peered at the white drops on the tray, fascinated. With two careful fingers Ñ a beautiful pincer grasp, if I do say so myself Ñ he attempted to pick up a drop of spilled milk. Then he transferred the insubstantial drop back to the sippy cup's spout.

Drop by drop, he smeared the milk across the tray, trying to put it back in his cup. He was doing the impossible, only he didn't know it couldn't be done.

I watched, mesmerized.

Earlier, I'd been filling a bag with oranges at the grocery store when I overheard a mother speaking to her son. I have no idea what the circumstances were, but in the course of her tirade, the woman called the boy several different disparaging names. The pair seemed very angry with each other, and I immediately felt irritated by her tone. I wished I could play her back a recording of her own voice so she could hear exactly how hurtful she was being.

Only that would have been incredibly hypocritical of me, considering I'd used the same tone of voice, if not the same words, with one of my own children not too long ago.

What I wanted to say to the unknown mother at the grocery store was the same thing I would have needed to hear that day: You can't put a drop of milk back into a sippy cup; you can't un-ring a bell; you can't take back the names you call your child, either directly or by implicated tone.

I think most of us don't even notice the names we use to describe our children as being harmful, especially if we feel they are honest descriptors.

Slow. Moody. Bossy. Ungrateful. Irritating. Lazy. Argumentative.

Using negative words to describe our children often has the opposite effect from what we might hope. I imagine the point of using derogatory names would be to shame a child into turning away from those traits to forge better, more praiseworthy qualities. But on top of telling our kids that our love and tolerance is dependent upon their good behavior, placing labels on them actually reinforces their chances of growing into the names we use.

A child who has a thriving inward imagination is labeled as lazy. Thinking this about herself, she never tries to focus her thoughts in productive directions and only lives up to that predestined expectation.

A child who has a strong desire to be included is labeled as demanding. Believing it's the truth, he never learns to temper his desires with tactful patience and fits perfectly into his parents' low hopes.

Instead of building them up and away from negativity, we draw them down deeper into it when we use negative words and voices with our kids. What I and many other parents must remember is that the spilled milk cannot be replaced, drop by destructive drop, into the cup. Our words cannot be unheard, even if we think we're being ignored. Our kids will internalize our statements and live up to our expectations.

Before we spill words into our children's laps, we must first imagine what we hope those words will inspire.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,http://thisheavenlylife.