Let’s face it, very few of us are comfortable living in the ‘grey’. We like to have a clear sense of who, or what, we’re dealing with
– which is why we often think in terms of binary categories or labels. Black or white. Girl or boy. Good or bad. Unfortunately for our label-loving selves, children rarely fit so neatly into such categories – and nor should they.
As we discussed in the last myth, labels are inherently limiting. And for kids, they are not only limiting, but can also be quite confusing and anxiety provoking. Take the label of ‘good’ for instance. By our society’s standards, ‘good’ children are those who do not rock the boat. Who wait their turn, listen quietly, raise their hand, and generally make life easy for us. But what happens when this child has a ‘bad’ (or dare I say human) day? When they feel impatient, sad, or mad? Are they suddenly less ‘good’? And therefore, less lovable? Whether we mean to or not, by labeling children as ‘good’ we are unconsciously teaching them that their worth and lovability are conditional.
This not only undermines our children’s sense of security in the world, it also robs them of the chance to learn how to deal with difficulty. Kids need to be angry. They need to be wilful, defiant, and impatient. They need to test their limits and figure out where their boundaries are – and the way they do this is often through testing us. But if we insist on things being easy, we will never grow big enough shoulders to carry our kids through the many storms they will face and out the other side. In essence, through own fear and avoidance of difficulty, we prevent our kids from developing the self-regulation, emotional intelligence, and resilience they will need to succeed in life.
Not surprisingly, the label of ‘bad’ can be equally as damaging to children. And similar to how we define ‘good’, we often say that kids are ‘bad’ when are they not making life easy for us. These are the kids who have a counterargument for everything you say. Who get easily distracted, make demands, or otherwise defy us. But what if we looked at their behaviours from a different angle? Rather than seeing how argumentative or defiant a child is – what if we saw how intelligent and self-assured they are? What if we could see the ways in which they make life difficult for us as potential sources of strength and resilience? Of course, this isn’t easy. But if your expectation of being a parent, teacher, or caregiver is that it should be easy, then you are in for a world of disappointment.
This isn’t to say that we don’t understand or respect how difficult caring for children can be – but this is why we created the Village. A job this hard isn’t meant to be done alone. We need all the resources, support, and help we can get if we are to shoulder our children and students safely and successfully into adulthood.
Finally, when we label kids as good or bad, we miss out on their story – and ultimately on a chance to truly see and connect with them. In my work with at-risk youth, I once encountered a professional who made a comment about a particular school being a place where ‘bad’ kids go. Little did they know that most of those ‘bad’ kids they were referring too had suffered more abuse, neglect and trauma in their short lives than this professional would likely encounter in a lifetime. Did that mean that the kids they were referring to weren’t behaving badly? Or course not. But all I could think in that moment was, “If you had grown up the way they did, you just might behave badly too.”