Last week, my two-year-old was being testy. And demanding. And all the fun things that go along with toddlerhood. At one particular moment, he had shoved my brother's arm aside in clear irritation. Okay, so maybe he had a right to be irritated (this is my brother we're talking about here), but my husband and I didn't want to encourage rude behavior. But as much as I want to call him out on his rudeness, I try to label his action, not him.
"That was rude," I pointed out. I could have easily said, "You're rude," but I didn't want him to think that he is inherently rude, just that his shoving someone aside was inappropriate.
Labeling applies to emotions as well. When he isn't exactly Mr. Chipper, I try not to say phrases like, "You're grumpy," or "You're sad." Instead, I aim for, "You're being grumpy," or "Do you feel sad?" That way, he won't think that he's a grumpy person, but rather a person having a grumpy day, or feeling sad at this particular moment.
Even positive labels are subject to mislabeling. Take, for instance, saying, "You're funny!" instead of "You're being funny!" Unlike negative labels, being funny or other positive traits probably don't do too much harm, but sometimes even positive labels might lead kids to assume these traits and actions are based on what others say, and not necessarily on how they see themselves. Or they may begin to feel like they are predominantly these traits—from funny to shy, from athletic to artistic—without room for much else, since "funny" is their "thing."
How the Spanish language relates to parenthood
In English, we have one way to define people: I am. The same word applies to permanent definitions like our roles as mothers (I am a mom) just as much as it applies to more fleeting emotions, circumstances and feelings (I am tired).
Spanish, on the other hand, draws a distinction between the two states of being with the verbs ser and estar. Ser is used for the more permanent and inherent descriptions such as I am a mom (Soy mamá) while estar applies to conditions and changeable states such as I am tired (estoy cansada).
Who knows whether Spanish evolved to reflect this distinction just so that we won't necessarily tie our actions to our selves, but I've found the difference a helpful reminder that, when it comes to parenting, we need to label the actions instead of our kids, particularly with misbehavior and discipline. We can reinforce that we may not always approve of what they do, but we'll always love them no matter what.