I talk and teach a lot about empowerment of parents. Empowering them to understand their choices through pregnancy, labour, birth and beyond.
Something which sits alongside that though, is about the children themselves, and THEIR empowerment.
How can we empower our children? How can we give them the opportunity to become everything they can be?
Maslow’s hierachy of needs is a well-known model, and one which outlines our differing needs, from the most basic (consisting of food, safety, shelter) up to love, friendship and other social relationships, and at the top of the pyramid ‘self actualisation’ or as Maslow puts it “What a man can be, he must be”.
Something which is detrimental to anyone reaching that stage of self-actualisation is stereotyping or labelling. Self-fullfilling prophecy is a well-known concept.
So it does make me feel somewhat sad when parents label their own (and others!) children. Especially during the baby, toddler and preschooler years, when children are undergoing a massive amount of change and development. The criticial mind does not develop until around the age of 6, so this means children accept what they hear and see around them (which is why prejudices are so easily evolved) but also about themselves.
One of the things which amazes me still is when I give parents a prop during a baby massage or yoga class (usually a sensory or musical toy) to use with their little one, and someone comments about their little boy playing with the pink toy, even suggesting they would not be ‘allowed’ that toy at home. Why do we restrict what we will allow our children to play with based on our own stereotypes and limitations?
A person’s base rate of self-esteem is set by the age of 11, so the early years are essential for our mental health as adults. This means when we are considering our child’s needs, their basic needs for food and shelter, their safety, their friendships – we should also be considering what we are doing to truly empower THEM to be all they can be, and to reach their potential for self esteem and self actualization.
Labelling children hinders this fulfilment. Labelling children limits them, catergorises them, gives them something specific to live up to, thereby taking away their full and unlimited potential. It detracts from the fact that children are constant learners and developers. That children are different from adults – we often seem to judge children by adult standards, which just is not an appropriate measure.
Labels start early on in life ‘Is she a good baby?’ Good by what measure? Are any babies bad? Labels don’t seem to lessen as children grow up – and by the time they are going to preschool it is common to hear parents talking about what their child is like. Academic, shy, physically active, clever, sociable, etc etc. While it is natural to look for characteristics, as parents we should bear in mind how we reinforce those to our children… and it naturally leads to competitive parenting, as we compare a child against others.
Children go on a journey, and are ever changing creatures. When I look back at my son’s 4 years, already he has been through massive changes. His sleep – he has been a child who has been comfortable sleeping on this own, unhappy sleeping on his own; his socialibility, there have been times he is comfortable around new people, and times when he has been uncomfortable around new people. His language development, there was a time when he used less words than his peers, and have been times when his use of language has been ahead of his peers. I could go on, but in short by labeling him at a given point in his journey, that would have only been relevant for a short time.
Oren goes to school in September, and already I have found myself in an environment where many are labeling their children, and asking me to label mine as well (or trying to label him for me). Is he academic, sporty, sociable, daring, etc? My answer is that he is all of these things, at different times.
We should empower our children to discover who they are. What they like to do, to wear, how they like to play. Why limit them by our own standards, which are not only inappropriate (because they are adult-centric, not child-centric) they can probably also be traced back to labels applied to us as children too – instead allow them to find their own potential and be who THEY are.
I firmly feel empowering parents is crucial. However, empowering children to reach their potential is also crucial, and sometimes it is difficult for us as parents to do this. Especially when we are being limited by our own esteem or belief issues.
The voice of the child is something which I always include when I am assessing a situation. So I decided to ask Oren (my 4 year old son) about the things I am writing about, and see whether he has started to take on any labels, and which ones. Our chat this morning when like this:
Me: ‘Oren, are you clever?’
Me: ‘Are you sporty?’
Me: ‘Are you brave?’
Me: ‘Are you shy?’
Me: ‘So what do you think you are?’
Oren: ‘Mummy, I’m just Oren.’
A very wise answer from a little boy, and one which makes me a happy mummy, as it leaves him with all his possibilities open before him.
So don’t be afraid to challenge the labels which others give your children, but also be ready to challenge the ones you also have given. Keep their possibilities open before them, give them the chance to be everything they can be.