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‘It Does What it Says on the Tin’

How Labels Can Shape You.

How would you describe yourself? Enthusiastic, kind, sensitive? What about the children in your class or school? 

Labels are part of our society; it’s how we can distinguish one thing from another. We know the difference between a sandwich & an apple because of the names assigned to them; the labels which we call them allow us to build up the connection of their use, type etc.

I have been interested in the idea of labels as a definition & how these can not only influence how other people view us (& even interact with us) & also how these labels contribute to our own development of self-identity after reading Charles Cooley’s theory of ‘The Looking Glass Self’ Social Organization; A Study of the Larger Mind (1902)

The Cooley theory highlights the importance of social interaction in being pivotal to a sense of self perception. He presented three stages:

  • We imagine how we appear to those around us, for example we may think that others see us as witty or dull.
  • We interpret others reactions. We come to conclusion about how others evaluate us. Do they like us being witty? Do they dislike us for being dull?
  • We Develop a Self Concept. Based on our interpretations of the reactions of others, we develop feeling and ideas about ourselves.

Consider this scenario…..
A child from a very early age reacts to the interaction from adults & other children around them (cause & effect.) Not only is this developing a sense of how communication is a partnership but it elicits an action & reaction process. If I carry out an action & someone responds to it chances are I will carry on. The start of knowing that I have a special place in the environment around me. Move on a few years where the child is starting to develop a sense of what they feel is important to them; voicing their ideas & opinions & actions. Imagine then if these are very different to those of the people around them…how could this child then be viewed? Strange, weird, difficult or a little but bossy? This is the dichotomy I believe… surely we want children to be able to develop opinions for themselves & be able to voice them in a safe space were they are listened to, ideas are respected. We may not always agree but healthy conversations promote critical thinking & refining of ideas & views.

Imagine now as this child who is constantly met with unresponsive or unsupportive people who have decided for themselves that this child is demonstrating a particular set of attitudes & characteristics & have therefore been assigned specific labels.

What could be the possible impact of these labels? Dependent on the levels of resilience & secure self esteem already in place the child may see this a positive interaction, comfortable in the knowledge that not everyone can agree & carry on feeling content & open to consider alternative ideas & voice own opinions.

However, if these crucial skills are not yet established (bearing in mind that labelling at an early age may have actually contributed to this) then more negative labels probably will do very little to nurture a sense of positivity & could result in perhaps a poorer self-reflection developing. The child becomes the label & operates accordingly. This image starts to define them.
As I read more about Cooley’s theory there are several questions which jump into my mind & give me things to ponder…..

  1. We imagine how we appear to those around us, for example we may think that others see us as witty or dull.

How do we imagine this? Does it make a difference if our ‘imagines’ are already developed? So, for example, have we already built up a vision of how we consider people think about us? I can definitely think of times when my own opinion of me & the opinions from others are definitely at odds & polar opposites. If our own opinion of ourselves is so established will it colour our imaginations of how others see us? Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, partner or family member where you bemoan your failures only for them to say that they never see you like this? I have lots of times & it always comes as surprise to me that I project a particular image or attitude. I am also aware that my view from others isn’t necessarily always modified just because someone else presents me with an alternative. I wonder if there are any children in your classes/schools who are like this.  Is there a correlation between their poor mirror view, the language they use to talk about themselves & their readiness to modify their own beliefs?

  • We interpret others reactions. We come to conclusion about how others evaluate us. Do they like us being witty? Do they dislike us for being dull?

I can see where the concept of acceptance come into play in this element of Cooley’s theory. If everytime that we are witty & it generates a particular interaction & response, then this may motivate us to continue demonstrating this characteristic trait. This continues until it becomes an expected thing to do; further shaping a belief. Is this true of the way that we interact with our children? Have we unwittingly assigned labels for our children? Do we have a ‘funny’ one, an ‘outspoken’ one or a nervous one? It would be interesting to consider where these labels started & whether the children continue to perpetuate this label. What happens if hey no longer want to be the funny one? Is there a part of them which would worry about this as it could be perceived to be losing a part of them? I also wonder how we interpret others reactions & come to a conclusion. Is it always through the words we hear from others? I can appreciate the power of non-verbal communication in being an important element of this (especially as 70-80% of communication is relayed through NVC’s). Are we aware of this when interacting with our children & does this have role in embedding an opinion?

  • We Develop a Self Concept. Based on our interpretations of the reactions of others, we develop feeling and ideas about ourselves.

The looking glass self theory states that we change our self-perception based on how we guess others perceive us, not on how they actually perceive us. This is certainly a different viewpoint for me to consider. Where I may have previously thought that a sense of self identity could be based on what others tell you, this idea encourages me to widen my own thinking to consider the interpretation of what others say; shifting the emphasis to developing an opinion based on the analyses of others’’ response & interactions. I can see how this final point of Cooley’s theory can form a cyclical action-response model with each of the 3 elements in Cooley’s model interweaving & interacting. I now have lots of questions to consider… can I influence how a child interprets my thoughts & feelings to them? How can I ensure that there is a balance between explicit conversations meant to boost & conversations to support individual development? What would I do if a child seems ‘stuck’ in their perception; especially if their perception is at complete odds to how the rest of society perceives them? Is there a role for families to be involved in this?

In conclusion, this theory has certainly challenged me in considering the development of a child’s key social & emotional skills & my role within it. It has consolidated my view on knowing my children as children & being focused on nurturing the ‘whole child’ in order for them to find their special place in their world. It has sharpened my sense of responsibility in appreciating that this journey may be more difficult for others to develop; particularly if labels are ‘fixed’.

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The author

Jayne is a committed shoe lover and School Effectiveness Advisor for Lincoln Anglican Academy Trust. She loves discussing all things Early Years with anyone who will give her the opportunity and prides herself in looking after the adults in the hope that they can also look after the children. Achieve your potential! Winner of ‘Literacy / Numeracy Blog of the Year’ at the 2019 Nexus Education Awards.

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