Labeling Children: What's the Big Deal?

I have something to say about labeling children. I’m actually okay with it. The first time a parent said to me (in my role as a teacher) that she didn’t want her child labeled, I recall thinking, “Hmm. Really? Why not?” I certainly can see the harm in simply using labels to determine what children are and aren’t capable of in the classroom, but I guess I don’t see the massive problems with using one to determine how to proceed with parenting my son.


When I wrote about Morgan’s having EFD and started reading comments (dear Lord, I know better than to read them sometimes) I wondered “Why all the anger over labeling my son?” One comment that I really liked, however, came from a woman named Nancy who wrote: The good thing about labels is they can help you get services. The bad thing is they can feel like boxes, and they don’t fully describe our kids. She was, of course, right, but I still took myself to task with a label that I dislike.


Man. That label turns me off as an educator and here’s why: it appears that once you take a test in kindergarten to determine your “giftedness”,

that never actually goes away. I’m surely going to be taken to task for daring to bring up the gifted debate, but I’m being honest about this one and it stems from 20 years experience at schools. My friend, Julie, often scolds me for disliking “gifted” because, well, I’m a school administrator and aren’t we all supposed to embrace it? I certainly embrace the myriad types of learners and I can appreciate that everyone learns differently, but it’s the use of that term that rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s because it puts those children in a box from which they seem to be isolated and more special than all the other children.

Often, parents use it to explain away a lot of behaviors and to get students out of consequences that others would have to suffer. I think it rubs me the wrong way because of how much that label is at the forefront of talking about a child. In 20 years I would say that I’ve had less than a dozen truly gifted students who would qualify for such a label. In fact, I think LOTS of children (and adults) are gifted in many ways. Musical giftedness, the arts, and the way a child can create something is a great way to describe “gifted”, too. Yet, in schools, we normally think of it as being gifted in academic ways when a child has an extensive vocabulary or uses higher level math skills or can read Dostoyevsky in 2nd grade. We have two entire gifted schools in my community that have less to do with giftedness and more to do with separating children from the undesirable crowd. Really, two entire schools of that many gifted children? I just question it a lot and, trust me, I get in plenty of trouble for daring to do so.

“Alexis is gifted so she doesn’t have to do things the way other kids have to.” 

That’s an actual sentence a parent said to me years ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so sure that she was gifted. Everything she did academically seemed, well, normal. Sometimes she did her homework and other times she didn’t. Occasionally, she slapped other students while we waited in the lunch line. Her test scores were academically age-appropriate and she wasn’t really lighting the world on fire with her knowledge. I recall thinking that of all the qualities of a gifted student, she really didn’t seem to stack up against them. Alexis stayed after school every day with me during her 6th grade year and I got to know her pretty well. It was her choice to stay for tutoring with me and, after a full month, I finally got to know her well enough to ask her more in-depth questions about her giftedness.

What I learned about Alexis was that she tested well in kindergarten and got the label “gifted” and that she long ago threw it off, but her mom was insistent on keeping it to precede everything she did. “At ballet class, my mom told the teacher I was gifted, but I hate dancing,” she told me one day. Alexis mentioned that the same thing happened at her Girl Scout troupe and her piano teacher and that she didn’t feel gifted and really had no interests at all worth exploring. Her mother, however, kept using that to describe her to people and when Alexis was being difficult, her mom brought up her label again. That was almost 10 years ago. I caught up with Alexis recently and she told me she was sewing clothes for a local acting company.

Maybe the label gifted really meant that she was creative and knew her way around a needle and thread. It’s hard to tell. (For the record, she was just a really cool kid and I liked her. That’s probably why she always stuck around after school.)

To be fair, I see what people mean about labels for my son. I don’t talk about him using labels with new people we meet because I expect that they should get to know him. If they ask me about how different he is, though, it really helps to discuss how differently his brain works. I suppose I like the label on my son (and, okay, I’m not harping on gifted kids anymore) because it helps me understand him and gain patience and try to remember that I can’t be the same mom to him that I was to his siblings.

Perhaps he’ll grow up and do something like Alexis does or maybe he’ll create some new thing that everyone loves. What I do know is that Morgan does have to do things that other kids do and he has to conform in many ways that are uncomfortable for him. I will give him consequences for his behavior and struggle with teaching him that yes, indeed, he does have to be responsible in ways that “other” kids are responsible.

I have a complicated relationship with labels for kids and I have figured out that I am okay with the one my son has right now. I fear that mislabeling children leads to more problems than not figuring them out enough. Morgan probably labels me, too, and I just don’t know it. “Unrelenting Mom” might be it, but I prefer to think that I am also labeled as “Doesn’t Give Up On Her Kid.”

Mislabeled mango photo credit to Lauren

Obvious apple photo credit to Bryan Kennedy
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Article Posted 3 years Ago
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