Monday, October 3, 2011


Labels have their use.  They help us store and sort information.  Be they clothing labels or social labels, they help all of us in our fast-paced lives quickly sort through data and make "order" out options, possibilities, and stimuli that are constantly bombarding us.

They also have their limits. The problem is that labels also limit our horizons and skew expectations.  They empower groups to make 'justified' decisions with little research or thought, they empower groups to often feel better about themselves.  They limit growth or even exposure to growth options and possibilities, and they often hurt kids, teens in particular, who are struggling with 'identity' and critical thought.

This past weekend, my daughter's friend Daniel forwarded an article to me (about teenagers and nerds in particular) by Paul Graham he though I might like (and I did). I found it provocative, sad, and a MUST READ for parents and educators:

Paul Graham is a programmer (he designed List, co-founded Viaweb, invented Bayesian span filters), a venture capitalist, essayist, author, and painter. One of the things that was so powerful in his essay was the pain he relays the "nerds...retards...and freaks" felt through middle and high school.  His article "WHY NERDS ARE UNPOPULAR" was written December 2005, and while just short of six years old, still rings true.

Graham's essay focuses on the harsh brutality of the teen years of middle and high school: the cruel cliques, use of labels, the abuse of one group upon another, and his perception of the cause and effect these labels and groups have.  He also discusses the nature of 'nerdhood' (which I will discuss in two more weeks - for the letter "N").

In this post I focus on the nature of the labels. 

Labeling Theory and Why are our kids "LABELING" others:

Emile Durkheim (visit http://www, for more) suggested that labeling satisfies society's need to control behavior.

Our kids label because we as adults label others.  We label ethnic groups, religious groups and political groups all the time.  Granted one might ask, are we doing this as adults because we learned it as kids?  This is a 'which came first the chicken or the egg' question and not of great consequence here (in my humble opinion).  The fact is WE label and our kids see this.  And, as I pointed out, we label to help sort and/or to control. 

Graham posits other reasons. 

He begins by noting that labeling is a way of making sense and creating their 'teen' world - separate from a kid's world and separate from the adult world:
Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters...

The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn't get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.
He then notes that once labels are given, a hierarchy is developed to 'help bolster' self-esteem and 'assure the vitality' of the group:
Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better. When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below.
Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn't a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups. Ask any nerd: you get much worse treatment from a group of kids than from any individual bully, however sadistic.

Graham paints a particularly disturbing picture, and one that, unfortunately is accurate in many schools.  He goes so far as to say that,

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.
In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.

Graham hints at a solution, however:
Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.
I have been a strong proponent of mandatory community service between high school and college - but maybe I got it wrong.  Maybe we need to create meaningful communities, opportunities, and activities for our teens - as individuals and in mixed groups as early as middle school.

The road to salvation - as I see it:
  • This was written in 2005 and I do think schools and adults have become more sensitive to labeling and bullying - in school.  WE still need, however, to be more sensitive in how we use labeling in our lives, in front of our kids, on our televisions, in our movies, in literature and the media. I am not sure the media will comply - but this may be a wonderful discussion point to bring up.
  • Discuss reasons for labeling and consequences of labeling with your kids.
  • When labeling, make sure it is not derogatory.  Make sure it is not a 'judgement' label. Make sure it is not done through a need to control or feel superior.
  • While "Zero Tolearnce" programs are problematic at best, their intent is not.  We should not tolerate bullying or name calling. 
  • When you notice yourself or your child labeling, or you notice labeling in the media or books you read - talk about it.
  • Schools should foster a strong sense of "community" outside of school teams and athletics.  This has to be done in and out of the classrooms:
    • There should be community charity drives
    • Community service through the schools - visits to hospitals (reading, recitals, etc.), retirement homes, food kitchens,  animal shelters - to name a few.  Each grade or each class should have its own project.  This builds community on many levels and everyone benefits.
  • Classroom work should be inclusive.  
    • Classroom discussions should be 'safe' for everyone to participate in;
    • Group work should not be student picked - in cliques and groups, but should be teacher generated - mixing up different strengths, preferences and opinions in each group.

Labeling DOES have its benefits, but we all have to aware of how and when we label others.  Labeling DOES help us sort through a world chock-full of information, but it can limit and restrict horizons as well.  What do you think?  I'd love to know.


  1. Dr Meryl,
    This is heavy stuff. I gave a cursory glance through and I decided I'm going to run through it again more times later! This is not just educational but current and I'm not one to be left out from the scene. Thanks for sharing


  2. Labeling seems to occur the instant we are born. I often hear parents say such things as, “this is the shy one and this is the showoff”. The categorizing of people who are not fully formed is a shame and can lock in characteristics unnecessarily. It is not too surprising that children in turn describe one another and need to recognize when a label is an insult. Sometimes perceptions of a label can change. For example, the nerds of this generation are seen in a more positive light now that technology and Bill Gates have come onto the scene. Labeling is, indeed, important to make sense of our world but restrictive if not used with care.

  3. I think a lot of what goes on in the child's head starts at home. If as a parent you talk to your children and discuss acceptable labeling and so on, you as the parent need to be the first teacher to your children. And than as a parent you need to be setting an example for the children to follow.

    I have been out of the school system for many years. My youngest child is 43 now, so I'm not one to give advice as to how the modern generation is behaving in the schools. But, if the news media is anything to go by, there are a lot of troubled children in the world today.

  4. Might be an eye opener to make a list of our own labels,whether given to us or chosen by us. Have these labels helped or hindered us en route to where we are now?
    Jane x

  5. I am going to read your post properly, but now I I am answering all comments first. Well about the word "loo". As Gattina said Waterloo means Waterwood. I think "loo "for toilet was derived from "Waterloo". Loo means wood. I thought I had to explain that, otherwise everybody would get the impression that the palace was one big toilet.Lol.Toilets are newer than "loos".

  6. Great post. Labels can be useful but as you said they can also be very limiting.

  7. Oh, labels are always there. One can choose not to talk about race, but even kids notice differences. The key isn't not to label, I think, but to not label pejoratively.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  8. I agree with most of your road to salvation - one of the biggest problems with labelling is not discussing it when you hear it.

  9. I agree that "labelling" can be incorrectly used, but we do need to differentiate between kids who "can" and kids who "can't" other words, it's important to find out why a child is not able to progress academically and find a different path of education for him/her. This would be a great topic for a Professional Day.

    abcw team

  10. What a thought provoking article! Thanks for the research, links and commentary.

  11. I agree with Gigi Ann, most of the time, ids learn from parents at home.

    Lessons at Home is one of my entries.

  12. Very insightful post on modern day education, - I see great differences in the experiences my grandchildren have in school compared to those of forty years ago. And my own experiences are another world all together....

  13. This is a very interesting essay. I opted out of popular culture when I was that age and was very firmly in the nerd group. I think the most important message in this essay is: "it doesn't have to be this way".

    I think that when people know how to interact respectfully, labels become far less important. My kids' school has a very good anti-bullying program. They start young, teaching kids strategies to cope with bad behavior and when to involve an adult. The teachers also get training. When bullying does occur, they resolve the situation by teaching the kids a better way to interact. My son's experience in middle school is much, much better than mine was.

  14. Self-esteem issues play a dramatic role in labeling others - kids and adults alike. I've always taught our children when someone picks on another person it's usually to make them feel better about themselves.

    Bullies will always be,unfortunately. We had them, mostly emotional bullying, when I was a kid and none of us turned out too bad.

    The key is to talk to your children and whenever possible let them take care of themselves. I realize this may be different where physical bullying is an issue, but name calling is just words.

    Very good read...thanks for sharing!

    Wayback Wednesdays…1993
    Cathy Kennedy,
    Children's Author, “The Tale of Ole Green Eyes”

  15. A great post full of insightful moments - great work.

  16. Wow! This was a great post! Thank you so much for writing it. I teach 8th grade confirmation class. I see a lot of labeling.

  17. it saddens me when kids start labeling each other. I do think some of it starts at home over hearing an elder use a "label" on someone else. Once you get one, it is hard to shake, and can lead to bulling. as an adult I also know it in the medical world through personal experience. it is easy for a medical pro to just quickly label when they do not know the true cause & that opens up a whole can of bad beans.

  18. I fully agree with you that remodeling is important. It sure is about 'improvement'. It feeds creativity and helps us see our worlds differently. It adds perspective. It also, in some way teaches us how to negotiate change. In fact this is where we change for the better.