Updated: Feb 7, 2019
Can you imagine going through life with the worst name in the world? Now we've all met some people where we wonder what the parents were thinking. I had a maths teacher called Arthur Lemon (would you believe he signed school reports A Lemon) and I know of someone whose name auto-corrects to Oral Truelove - really! But I'm talking about something far worse than those - the absolute worst name imaginable. I used to volunteer for a kid's youth club that worked with very disadvantaged kids and there was boy there who had been officially registered at birth as F*** You.
Right there, that says enough for us all to make a hundred assumptions about his life and his prospects - and sadly they would be about right. It illustrates the point though, that a name can make a huge difference to how we think about something. We aren't labelling our kids in such a horrible way though of course. I mean, we don't saddle them with anything like that expectation... but do we think enough when we do label our kids? Or doesn't it matter? Is it inevitable that they live up to whatever labels we give them?
The Story that's Told About Us
Narrative Therapy looks at the stories that we tell about ourselves and the ones that are told about us. When we consider how we talk about our children this can feel quite tricky. What exactly is the story that we tell about our children when we label them? "My DS doesn't know how to sit still," or"My DD isn't very good at playing with other children".
The Shy Child!
When my daughter was 3+ she started to behave in a really shy way e.g. hiding behind me instead of looking at other adults, not speaking at nursery, struggling to make eye contact etc. I thought it was just a phase. But in all honesty it was a complete pain. Every nursery report said "she didn't interact" and every time we went out other adults would start out all friendly "Hi there!" and get such a stroppy reaction that they couldn't help but react.
What would you do?
For example, when a lovely museum guide comes over to offer to tell your child a story about this particular object and gets the whole "Don't speak to me!" body language.
To Label or not to Label?
Perhaps wrongly, I did what felt like the only option. I started labelling like mad.
"Oh, she's just shy!"
Was that wrong? It was certainly great shorthand for other adults. It made me feel a whole lot better about this apparent rudeness. And in truth, it got a better response. Adults faced with a small 'shy' child are a lot more understanding and make a big effort.
Not shy anymore!
But then I read a book that said it was important not to call your child shy. They used the term 'slow to warm up' and for me that was a helpful distinction. I needed a mindset shift, from "She's shy and therefore won't do this", to "She's slow to warm-up, so it will take time". That was in practice really hard to do, but meant that I had something positive to aim for.
Its all about me!
Now, it doesn't take a genius to read all this and realize that it isn't really about my daughter at all. This is all about me as a parent. Frankie didn't change what she was doing just because I read a book on being shy. But I did change the way I thought about her. At the next party I told the other people there that Frankie needed a bit of time to warm up and would join in when she was ready. I would love to say that five minutes later she was all smiles and playing with everyone.... but you wouldn't believe me anyway! But I was a lot calmer at that party so at least one of us had a much better time. And one day, a couple of years later, Frankie did in fact start joining in. As that book put it, 'she 'warmed up'!
That little boy I mentioned at the beginning. Did he escape that dreadful first label? Well, obviously none of us wanted to use his real name, so everyone called him Alfie-Jo. Maybe a conspiracy of social workers and teachers gave him that small chance. I hope it worked out for him.
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