Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Truth About Labels

The box was filled with canned vegetables, and was too heavy for me to carry. It was a wedding present, and a welcome one, I must admit. What newlyweds wouldn’t appreciate some food to stock their pantry?

There was one slight problem. No labels. Seriously. NO LABELS.

Dinnertime became an adventure. We never knew what was coming out of that can. What will we serve with that meatloaf? It was a loaded question. We learned to love spaghetti night with mystery on the side. Lasagna served with surprise was always a hit.

It was kooky but we had fun with it. We couldn’t tell by looking at the can what was inside. We had to look deeper. We had to actually open up the can and see for ourselves what was inside.

Labels work well for lots of things. Cans, clothes, pillows, toilet paper, and packaged food of every kind have useful labels. However, labels don’t always work well for people, especially when we don't look inside.

Sometimes we wear labels that someone else chose for us. Often they are not complementary. Lazy, thoughtless, worthless, dumb, weird are some that come to mind. These labels are damaging. Get rid of them.

Better labels are those that build confidence and self-worth. Try wearing something like kind, helpful, smart, thoughtful, creative, sensitive, sincere, or grateful. Wearing positive labels helps us feel valued and significant.

We tend to become what we think we are. Sometimes this means we become what we think others think we are. Like a sponge we soak up the ideas that are directed to us even when they are not true. If they feel true to us, we absorb those ideas and reflect them in our actions and choices. Sometimes these ideas have the shape of words, but a mean look or unkind behavior can be just as significant.

I recall a family activity when our children were young. We wrote each child a letter complimenting them on one or two qualities we appreciated in them. The activity was magical. The children were delighted to have such nourishment, but the fun was just beginning.

For weeks after the activity, we noticed the children taking it one step farther. The child who was praised for sharing said things like, “I think I should share this toy with my sister, because I’m good at sharing.” The child who was praised for patience said something like “It’s okay if you’re busy. I can wait, because I am patient.” The child who was praised for cheerfulness bounced out of bed each morning with a smile and spread happiness where ever she could.

Because of the effectiveness of this activity, I began to wish that we had made our lists longer. Think of all the things we could have listed, if we had realized what a difference it would make.

Don’t you love to be noticed for something positive. Often as parents we do just the opposite. We pay attention to the negative and ignore the positive. What are we thinking? The behavior we feed is the one that will grow.

If we want to make a difference we need to celebrate the positive. Think of a positive trait that you want to nurture in someone and notice any behavior that is a step in the right direction. Give complements and watch to see what happens. This can’t be phony.

An almost magical thing occurs when children hear us praising them to others, especially when they think we don’t know they are listening.

We can teach our kids to look for the good in others and to say positive things to them. Children can be cruel, but we can teach them to be kind. Negative labels created in childhood by thoughtless words are sometimes difficult to erase. Let’s teach kids not to create them in the first place.

Bullying is prevalent in our society today. It has worked its way into neighborhoods and schools. Bullies thrive on making others miserable. Often they try to make themselves feel good by making others feel bad. Too many children have been damaged in this way. Such damage may have a permanent effect on a precious life.

Think of a negative label you received as a child and the damage it did to you. Was it lasting? If you were fortunate, you were able to see through it or overcome it. Maybe you had helpful teachers or family who made a difference for you. For some it is devastating.

You have daily opportunities to make a difference by treating someone with kindness. Though you may encounter people who seem annoying, irritating, irresponsible, or difficult, you can respond kindly. You can choose to validate them with positive labels. Look for something good to appreciate and mention it.

You can do this at work, in the neighborhood, or at church. You can respond positively in the grocery store or in the doctor’s office. You can do it in the bleachers at the soccer game.

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Shake off the negative labels you have acquired over time. Let them go. Whether you created the label or someone else did, if it is not a helpful label, toss it out.

Create for yourself positive labels. You may choose to post them on a mirror or some other prominent place. You may choose to repeat them out loud. Notice any behavior that validates a positive label and acknowledge your progress.

There are lots of desirable labels, but my favorite is I am a Child of God. It is true, and it is overflowing with possibilities. I love remembering who I am. What label could be better than that?

Linda Garner

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