Beware of Labels

Most of you know I don’t like the identity labels used to determine what generation someone belongs to i.e., GenX, Millennials, Gen Z, Silent Generation, etc. However, this post is not about those labels. This post is about a different kind of label. I think I’ll call these “pigeon-hole labels.” Here’s a definition I got from the internet for pigeon-hole: “disapproving – used to say someone or something is unfairly thought of or described as belonging to a particular group, having only particular skills, etc.” ( One example of this is to say, “Everyone who is homeless has a mental illness.” This is unfair and an untrue descriptive statement. Mental illness becomes a pigeon-hole label for the homeless people. It becomes a way to disapprove of two separate groups by pairing them together,

Working in the school system for many years I readily admit I have heard, accepted, and used labels indiscriminately. Yet, I am most bothered by students using negative labels about themselves or other students. They call themselves dumb, clumsy, and ugly. I’ve also heard students call other students crazy, stupid, and trolls. There was one student in my class that the other students called The Thing (ref. The Fantastic Four). It was not a term of endearment. He was taller than all the other children, overweight, and academically behind. One day when we were outside, I asked him why he wasn’t playing with the other kids. He said he was tired of chasing them around. I said then play something different. He said I can’t they only let me be the monster. He spent the rest of recess sitting on the sidewalk watching the other kids play. It was sad that the other kids called him a monster, but it was sadder still that he accepted this label.

As adults we must become more aware of how we use labels. People have so many attributes. No one label is ever enough to describe someone. While a family may be poor, they may also be resilient. A person with a learning disability may also be the most caring and giving individual in the room. A person who enjoys physical activities may not have any desire to be an athlete, they may choose to be a math whiz instead. We must be careful not to make one label so big that a person cannot see themselves in a different light.

There is a music video I love, it shows children and young adults holding signs with descriptive negative labels such as “Lost, Rebellious. Worthless” in front of their sad faces. At the end of video, as the song progresses, those labels are changed to more positive descriptions such as “Triumphant, Forgiven, Victorius.” These positive labels are held under smiling faces. ( Last week I shared this video with a friend and colleague. In turn she shared a story with me. It was about a boy who used to attend the afterschool program at the Boys and Girls Club. One day he saw a sign that said they served “disadvantaged youth.” He said that was when he discovered he was “disadvantaged.” Although he laughed when he said it, it was obviously painful to him. My friend said she felt an immediate conviction. I replied, “Labels are hard to outlive and stick until corrected by someone in authority.” I shared my friend’s conviction.

No one wants to be pigeon-holed, but too many people are, especially youth and young adults. They are not all hoodlums, gangsters, lazy, entitled, selfish, losers. When we as adults affirm negative labels, we are guilty of destroying hope and vision. We are guilty of damaging the self-worth of another individual regardless of age. This is not the way of our ancestors. This is not the way to build community.

The so-called Silent Generation (my mom’s generation) spoke success over their children, the Baby Boomers (my generation), and the Baby Boomers promoted adventure and prosperity in the lives of the Gen-Xers (my sons’ generation). What is being spoken over the next generations? Is it hopeful, redeeming, transforming, or visionary? Does it build up self-worth and security in one’s identity? Or does it bring shame, insecurity, and rejection? Beware of labels; they have the power to build up or tear down.

It would be interesting to see what labels we carry around about ourselves. As you ponder your labels, imagine what labels your children and grandchildren carry with them every day. It may give you a chance to change their perspective by giving them some new positive and true labels. You have the power to influence character.

Be caring. Be wise. Be selfless. Be the best you can be.

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