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How to Avoid Giving Your Children Labels

Amanda Kowal, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Human Development & Family Studies, Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri


Your children are so different – they each have very different talents, skills, and personalities so it can seem natural to give them labels. For example, one child may be the “smart one” or the “artist” or the “troublemaker”. Although it is easy to give your kids labels, they can be hard for children.

Downsides of Labels
When kids are given negative labels they often feel that parents don’t expect or want them to change. They may feel that they should live up to their negative labels. For example:


  • The “messy child” may see no reason to try to be neat and tidy when his parents have already clearly defined his role in the family.
  • The “troublemaker” may feel that any attempt to be good will be ignored.
  • The “wild child” may think that he or she might as well continue to do crazy things because parents expect it.

Even positive labels can be problematic as children may feel pressure to meet their parents’ expectations, and often feel guilty that their parents seem to like them more than a brother or sister. For example:


  • Janet, the “good student” in a family, may be very upset when she doesn’t get the top grade on a test. She may feel depressed and unhappy that she is not meeting her parents’ expectations. She may also feel sorry and embarrassed for her siblings because their parents aren’t as proud of them.

Siblings’ labels also impact a child’s view or himself or herself. For example:


  • Sara’s brother is the “musical” child, so Sara may feel she should not be interested in music because she can never be as good as her brother. This means that Sara could lose out on the joy of playing an instrument just because she thinks her brother will always play better than she.


Avoiding Labels

  • Remember that each child is unique and has the ability to do many things and act in many different ways.
  • Focus on the child’s actual behavior without giving him or her a general label. For example, getting into trouble a lot does not make a child “bad”.
  • Focus on the positives. For example, if your child, who always seems to be running late, gets to the dinner table on time, be sure to praise him for being on time.
  • Realize that children may be born with certain personality traits, but as a parent you can influence them to behave and act differently and not lock them into particular roles.
  • Don’t let children lock themselves into roles- encourage children to try things they are interested in, even if a sibling is more talented.



Faber, A. & Mazlish (1987). Sibling's Without Rivalry. New York: Avon.


Last Updated 05/05/2009









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