Stick and stone will break my bones, but words will surely scar me.
"I always spill things, I'm a spill girl" my eight year old tells me. When I question her about that statement she explains to me, "it's what everybody calls me". Everybody seemingly relating to her aunties and uncles, who observed and labelled accidents she's had. No ill intention was meant, a joke, a fun name, a story she's now attached to herself which results in a cycle of negative self image, worry and altered physical control - so in fact she does then spill more things.
I'm often told by friends "oh my daughter is so shy" or "she's so naughty", "he can't pay attention", "she's the clever one". These labels, whilst often meant as throw away observations in fact label and pigeon hole, placing expectation of behaviour on to the child. Labelling the behaviour and action rather than the child enables their brain to explore opportunities to behave differently, it teaches children empathy and understanding and promotes positive stories about their world and themselves. Instead of "you're a naughty boy" ask your child the question "was that behaviour kind?" This enables the child to make a positive choice about an alternative response in future similar situations.
Even seemingly positive statements can have an impact. Our local football team tells its star players, aged 7, that they are brilliant, much better than any other players or teams. Whist positive praise engenders a moment of feeling well, giving young children the mindset that their success is based on an innate ability rather than praising the action limits growth mindset, so when things don't go well, or success isn't immediate their belief is around lack of innate ability rather than lack of experience or practice. Changing "you were amazing" to "you worked so hard this week and it showed" creates a link between effort and outcome, enabling young people to see that their abilities are not fixed in any area of life and that growth and potential exist.
Our responses to our children are largely habit, those statements we routinely use are ingrained within our psyche. Many from our experiences of personal relationships. Changing those thought patterns and words is a practice in retraining our nervous system. So what can we do? When we recognise that labelling, stop and ask "is this a helpful label to have?" (More on that later).
"Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder" - Rumi