labels parenting

When the World Wants to Define Your Child by a Label

11:15 AMHeather

I am not an outstanding cook, although my dad was. It seemed to skip me, but my sister got this natural talent. Our dad made up recipes and spent hours creating delicious meals in a long process that brought him joy. 

I cook more for necessity. More for function than for fun. And please, my favorite recipes involve about 4 ingredients and 2 steps of instructions.

Yet even I know, in my lack of cooking prowess, that a sure fire recipe for disaster would be a spice rack made up of bottles with no labels. 


A seasoned professional (get it?) could likely determine the paprika from the chili powder by the scent alone. Or the ginger from the garlic. But, when it comes to cooking, we simply need the labels to help us be successful in adding spice to our food.

The problem is that people, and particularly children, are not spices. Oh, sure, some are spicy... but labels do not serve children well. 

Labels are a one dimensional approach to define a complex, multi-faceted person. A person created in the image of God, who is himself, often quite beyond our comprehension.

We are all prone to this tendency to define children by a label. It starts just after birth.

"Is she a good baby? A good sleeper? Is she fussy? Does she have colic?"

Hmm. Don't we all do this? These precious little bundles so fresh from heaven are prone to definition by a simple label when they have yet to recover from the shock of life outside the womb.

We label children by their temperament. Or their interests. Sometimes, by their medical history or mental health struggles or learning differences.

But it's a dangerous habit.

Because children are so much more than even the most aptly appointed label.

I see this magnified in the lives of my friends who have special needs children. I think of one friend who did not get a diagnosis for her daughter until she was eight. The first "label" attached didn't quite fit. The parents' gut instinct was that there was far more going on and they sought to understand it. To gain knowledge and insight into the suffering and frustration their daughter was enduring. When the diagnosis came, the label finally made sense of the chaos.

But she is so much more than a label. 

Although the world tends to see her only through that one lens. To make sense of what we don't understand, we tend to define children by a label.

But she has a wicked sense of humor, although her verbal skills are basic. She has an affectionate, caring heart that she cannot fully express with words or actions, due to the limitations of her body. She has a fierce determination and she is a warrior who has soldiered many the battles, including tiny ones throughout every day.

The world may see her as weak. But she is, in fact, far stronger than most of us.

To learn all this-- to glean all this-- to fully appreciate her, you cannot just look at the label from a distance, like a bottle of spice left on a shelf. It involves getting closer, and interacting and tasting all her goodness.

While I am not a mom raising a special needs child, I have lived the frustration of coming to terms with a world wanting to define my children by labels. 

The first major battle came when my preschooler went through testing for a private school for kindergarten. We were told he was developmentally delayed and not kinder-ready because, among other reasons, he did not complete a drawing of a person with the leg in the expected position.

I'm sorry.

WHAT?!

Even when I explained that the testing could not possibly be seen as completely valid considering the brusque, abrupt and scolding manner in which my child was treated by the stranger testing him, I was dismissed.

Yeah, so my kid didn't go to that school.

Instead, he conquered kindergarten like a champ and while his reading skills took a year or two to develop, he has been reading above level since second grade.

Take that, crazy label lady.

Here's what I learned from that experience. When someone charges at you with a huge label they want to stick around your kid and define them by, you have to be careful. You have to be open to ask the Lord who made your child to help you discern any truth in the definition. You have to ask for wisdom to see beyond your pride and your bias to humbly consider if maybe, just maybe, that person is on to something. And then, you might have to humbly adjust course and head some new directions if there is fresh insight that rings true about your child.

And you also have to stand firm, bravely speaking and believing the truth about your child that does not fit the label given. Labels tend to bring limits. We, as parents, must believe the whole picture and continue to be students of our complex children. Do not receive the misunderstandings, the shortsighted perspective or heaven forbid, the accusations that can come with a label.

Because I am a people pleaser, it can overwhelm and defeat me when someone comes at me with a label, whether it's ill fitting, inaccurate, or somewhat true, about my children. 

I have to run to God in those moments and ask him to humble me to any new thing I need to consider from the source and to stand firm on that which doesn't fit. And I have had to learn, the very hard way, how to advocate for my child. And how to speak life giving truth about who God made them to be to myself and to them.

I cannot even express the angst, tears and conflict I have had over this battle ground of the world wanting to define my children by labels.

I cannot even fathom the war waged by parents of special needs kids, or children with medical diagnoses, or mental health issues or learning differences.

I'm a complete wimp. I admit it here. I'm probably quite ill equipped to be writing this blog post at all. But after a long conversation with a young mom this week, I couldn't shake the feeling I need to write anyway.

Mamas, your children, every one of them, are complex and wonderful and hard to understand and amazing and beyond definition. And while the world may want to define them by a label, let's just call a spade a spade.

It's horse crappery, as Jen Hatmaker might say.

Here's the truth, if I could be so bold as to finally put it to "paper." 

Not all boys love sports. Some are big feelers and creative and deep thinkers and passionate. That doesn't mean they aren't good students. In fact, they are actually crazy smart. Maybe they just physically cannot sit still for 7 hours a day. It doesn't mean they have ADD. It is, after all, a lot to ask of elementary school aged boys. And even if they do have ADD or ADHD, they are not a problem you have to solve. They are kids with big brains and untapped potential who need you to make some effort for them.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a kid with a big heart and a teachable spirit and a crazy good work ethic who loves basketball is not tall. Seriously. Sometimes, kids are just physically built one way that seems contrary to the sport of choice. But they might still have the great potential for success in a sport IF they can just be coached and coaxed and you can see the big picture. When you, educators and coaches, are in a position of influence over kids, you are always sending them a message that helps them chart their course. That influence can either inspire them or defeat them. And the wounds inflicted by a careless comment from an adult are sometimes far deeper than you will ever know.

News flash. Hold on for it. 

Not all little girls are girly girls who love pink and bling. Sometimes, as in the case of my daughter's friend, there is a tenacious athlete all wrapped up in a little package. I believe we tend to use the label, "tom boy." 

There are mature, teenage girls who are small for their age who don't need to be coddled. They are, in fact, amazing leaders, within that delicate frame. 

Or in the case of my own girl, there are very tall young ladies who are actually the youngest in the grade. And she may or may not decide to play basketball. 

Non-verbal children still have much to say.

Mentally ill children have an inner strength you never see when you only look at the label.

Children with learning differences are smart and intelligent and their abilities cannot be defined by their struggles.

Kids who come from a hard upbringing and rough neighborhood are not doomed to repeat the cycle.

I remember watching the movie The Breakfast Club when I was a teenager. I'm dating myself, but it's a movie that dives headlong into this idea of how ill fitting labels are when they are applied to people. Preach it, Molly Ringwald. Tell us more Judd Nelson.

Because it's so very true.

God knit each and every one of us together in our mother's wombs. The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are loved and adored and made in the image of our Creator God.

If we could only continually remember the miracle of each and every one of us. That this combination of cells and muscles and bones and such has a brain that is still beyond scientific explanation. 

That we would spur each other on, as parents, to say-- I see all the wonder of YOU. I see all the wonder of your children. 

That we would tread softly with each other, with copious amounts of grace, constantly remembering we are all fighting our own battles.

That when a label is used or even accurately given, we would remember this.

A label wisely defines a spice. Or an object.

But it can never fully define a person.

So to every mama out there, fight on! You are doing kingdom work loving those little people that God gave you. And they are a continual source of fresh insight and untapped potential. With God given purpose.

They are far, far more than any label someone tries to put on them.

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