Middle school. Those two words may be the most anxiety-producing words in the English language. Say them out loud to a group of adults and you’ll get story after story of how awful those years were. Say them to a group of elementary-school kids, and you’ll get questions about whether they’re going to get stuffed in a locker and how they’ll ever manage to find their classes. Say them to a group of middle-schoolers, and you’ll hear all about how they can’t wait to get to high school.
Middle school is a tough age. It’s an in-between time. Bodies are changing. Opinions are forming. Things that were once your child’s favorite are now relegated to a spot in the closet. Things you didn’t even know they liked are now their favorites. Those years from 10 to 13 are a tough, confusing time.
And they’re made even worse when our kids spend time comparing themselves to others. Whether it’s grades or clothes or activities, our kids spend a lot of time comparing themselves to others. They place labels on themselves and each other. “She’s smart. He’s an athlete. She’s a musician. He’s a skater.” Our kids pigeon-hole themselves and others by putting labels on each other after they’ve compared themselves.
That comparing and labeling is harmful because it gives our kids a one-dimensional view of themselves. It makes them see themselves as only capable of one thing. When our kids focus on only one of their abilities and talents, it makes them feel that all of their self-worth is tied up in that talent.
God didn’t make athletes and musicians and smart people. He made every single one of us in His image. He made every single one of us to be a reflection of Him. That means that each of us, and each of our kids, is a complex person. We can’t be boiled down to one label.
My older daughter often gets labeled as an athlete. “She’s really good at sports,” we hear. She is very athletic, but that’s not all she is. She’s also smart, funny, a great problem-solver, and someone who is full of perseverance. When someone labels her an athlete, it leaves out so much of who she is that it makes me cringe.
If our kids hear one label often enough, they will begin to believe that that’s all they are capable of doing. They will lose the idea that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in all areas. They will begin to focus on just that one thing that everyone else thinks they are good at.
But what happens when that one thing fails them? What happens when the athlete gets hurt? What happens when the smart kid gets a C? What happens when the musician meets a piece of music she can’t master? That’s when our kids begin to question their value. That’s when they begin to wonder at their worth.
When we talk to our kids and when we talk about other kids, we need to be careful not to label those children. We need to be careful to view them as well-rounded people, not just a single-talent person. We need to point out all of a person’s qualities to our own kids. And we need to correct our kids when they start to label others. We need to remind them that there’s more to a person than just one attribute.
And when our kids find themselves being labeled, we need to remind them that they are more than just one trait. We need to point out to them that they are a “masterpiece” created in God’s image and just like a masterpiece has many colors, they have many talents and traits. We need to help our kids resist the need to fit into a single box — because God didn’t make them to fit in a box; He made them to fill a role in His plan.
Take a minute today to examine how you talk to and about your kids. Think about how your kids talk about themselves and their friends. If you find any of you tend to pigeon-hole others or yourselves, take steps to change the way you talk about yourself and others. Make it a point to look for other things to praise in your kids than the ones that fit the labels they’ve been stuck with. Because all a label does is limit your child’s possibilities.