Recently it was brought to my attention that very young children cannot differentiate between when someone labels their behaviour and when someone labels their person. It sounds so simple, I can’t believe I hadn’t realised that before. Having this information brought to my attention led me to reflect, as I do, and I remembered a time when I had told my three year old that something he was doing was mean. He looked at me, bottom lip quivering, and said ‘I’m not mean’. I was impressed that he so quickly defended his character out loud with words. But the fact that he thought I was calling him mean was awful. It bothered me. A lot! On remembering that incident, I struggled to recall what I usually do when managing my young children. Is this something I usually do? Use negative words to describe behaviours and expect my pre-school children to know I’m not labelling them? I didn’t think so, but maybe it was more that I didn’t want to acknowledge that about myself.
It wasn’t easy to admit that how I was managing my children was potentially damaging. I was annoyed with inability to articulate what I thought I should be doing instead. I have my general rules about getting down on the child’s level, remaining calm, describing what I’ve observed, and so on. I knew that I generally didn’t use negative words like naughty. I could explain that our children are taught and reminded how to calm down using the strategies on our calming poster, or that they go to the thinking chair to reflect on their behaviour and find a strategy make things better. It bothered me though, that I couldn’t provide a hypothetical script for the words I use in these situations. Needless to say, from then on I was overly mindful when managing undesirable behaviours from my children.
I came across this article that explains exactly what I had been told, that young children do not differentiate between labelled behaviour and a label for them as a person. It goes further to say that this labelling (even of behaviour) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It suggests that the shame and sadness children feel from hearing such things limits their ability to learn from the situation. All of this makes perfect sense. Why didn’t I know this? The suggestions from this author were to breathe and calm down, report what you see, and then ask your child for ideas to move forward. I already do these steps, with the inclusion of adding an opinion or qualifier of the behaviour (the label). That inclusion is what was damaging. I have a lot of experience in managing teenagers and adults; specifically teenagers demonstrating unacceptable behaviours, and, behaviour has been a focus of much of my study. It is surprising how often I discover that I am not practicing at home what I practice and preach at work.
After my conscious effort to be mindful, I can now articulate what I currently believe to be the best way to manage undesirable behaviours in my toddlers. If labels become self-fulfilling prophecies, I want to label my children and their behaviours with positive descriptors. I imagine the strategy outlined below is effective with people of all ages. Depending on the situation, my children may need to visit the calming poster or the thinking chair before we follow these steps so that they are prepared to learn.
AFFIRM: Begin with a statement that positively labels the child. Reinforce this statement.
- You’re a kind person Joey. I know you are. I saw you help Theodore get his porridge ready this morning and help him up when he fell down.
DETACH: Ask a closed question that separates the negative behaviour from the positive label.
- Is hitting kind, Joey?
- Is throwing toys something nice people do?
EMPHASISE: Make a statement highlighting the inconsistency.
- It doesn’t make sense that a kind person would hit.
ACT: Ask an open question about restoration.
- How would a kind person make this better?
If necessary, offer suggestions:
- Look after a hurt or sad person with a hug
- Help to clean up the mess
- Ask “what can I do to help/make it better”