Labels

Labels in our society are dangerous concoctions. Granted, they do have their place. It’s much easier to deal with an issue once it is identified – properly identified – but there is a darker side to labels: total immersion.

We see it everywhere, from the poorly written screenplay to real life: characters and people who lose any individuality under the cloak of their label. I fear, however, that the root of this begins with us: parents.

A few years ago as our oldest was struggling with reading in second grade, I began to hyper-analyze his every move. “There must be something,” I thought. But the something I was reaching for was where things got fuzzy. Was I looking for understanding my son’s individual learning style? Certainly not. Was I looking for the additional work I could do with him at home to help him along his journey? No. At the time I was having a hard enough time juggling all of the volunteer duties I had signed up for. How was I going to have any time for my own son?

I was looking for the little blue pill. I was looking for the answer: that clinical, scientific definition as to why my son was behind the curve when it came to reading. He is a smart enough boy – no prodigy for sure, but certainly capable – which made me think that he must have some sort of condition, and once determined, then I’d be able to approach professionals – educators, physicians – with my son and say “He’s blah-blah-blah,” and they’d know exactly how to deal with him.

So I read. I scoured the Internet. I talked to other parents. I started coming to the conclusion that my son was mildly dyslexic. Then one day, as I was thinking more and more about this possible condition – one might say mildly obsessing – I called my mother.

“Yeah, I’m thinking about having him tested for dyslexia.”

“Oh, you don’t want to do that. You don’t need him labeled.”

I hesitated at this. My knee-jerk reaction was to think, “Geeze, mom, that’s awfully closed minded of you.” I heard her reaction as if she was being a parochial grandmother who did not want to have to tell her friends that one of grandsons was dyslexic.

I was not hearing her.

While 3000 miles away, we’ve made efforts to make sure the boys get to see their grandparents, and my mother is my go-to person for parenting issues. She hears about everything: the good, bad, and the indifferent. What I wasn’t hearing from her was her call for patience…from me.

In my hesitation I did not snap at my mother, or over-react defensively, essentially because I was confused. “Why not label?” I thought.

So I thought about this. A lot. And I thought, “What if they find that he is mildly dyslexic?” After all, if my oldest had anything, it was going to be less than mild. In hindsight the issues he was having with grasping fluent reading were minimal at best, which is why none of his teachers had every said anything more than, “Make sure to read with him at night.”

If I was to find and attach a label on him – regardless of its appropriateness – I’d be discounting other elements of his personality. While the definition of dyslexia would provide some guidelines as to how to help better manage his reading, would such a label be perfectly appropriate for my son, considering his symptoms were so borderline at best?

I’m not arguing that labeling is never appropriate. You know when you’ve met those kids who are really ADHD, or who have impulse control issues, or Asperger’s. And your heart goes out to them. The kid who, when you look into his eyes, you can see the struggle that he’s trying to stop himself from doing what he’s about to do, and he just can’t stop himself. I can understand labels in these cases.

But over-protective, over-involved parents, like me, too often try to take pop-psychology labels and to apply them to their own kid(s), and for all sorts of reasons. I was looking for the silver bullet. I had over-extended myself and thought, “My kid’s smart enough. He should be picking this up quickly. There must be something wrong.”

And it’s so easy to do with your first child. Anyone parent with more than one child knows how much you relax with the second. Well, at least about some things.

Our family is fortunate in that our two boys are perfectly seated in the meat of the bell curve developmentally. That blessing is not lost on us…at all. Being in the meat of bell curve implies there are a lot of other kids seated there as well, and I wonder how many have been tagged with some sort of label that will follow them throughout their life, influencing how they behave and develop.

And the labeling is not just for medical conditions. Athlete. Musician. Alex P. Keaton, Jr. Labeling is what our society does. And sometimes it gets out of control. Parents of third graders already label their own kids, “Oh, he’s not really good at this, he’s really a lacrosse player.”

I did it just the other day in front of a friend who’s also a swim coach. I referred to our oldest who is now a fifth grader, “He’ll never be a sprinter. He’s got the body of a long-distance swimmer.”

My friend erupted, “You don’t know that!”

And he’s right. Even when I KNOW I shouldn’t be labeling my kid with anything other than “son,” or “kid,” or “child” I slip back into it.

It’s easy, right? Cocktail conversation. Twenty-five words or less, tell me about your life, and when you have kids, that life is your kids because you too have a label. In my case it’s “stay-at-home dad.”

See where I’m going with this?

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