Problems with labelling children

"I used to see 'my autistic son Drew'. He's just himself now, in my eyes."
—Michelle Thedaker**

Behavior Diagnoses


A child who is diagnosed with this condition will grow up to be an adult with the condition.
Sandra Dodd:
And a child who is NOT diagnosed with that "condition" will never have it, nor grow up to be an adult with it.
(original, facebook discussion, 2016—seems to be gone in 2024; sorry)

Holly mentioned the other day that she's sorry so many parents want their kids to be diagnosed with problems so the parents don't have to learn to be better parents, and then the kids will act however they want to and say "Oh, I didn't take my meds today" as an excuse. (Holly was 16.)

Amy g wrote:

Lydia had a girl on her cheerleading squad (who does take meds for her behavior, and yes Holly is correct she does use not taking them as an excuse for bad behavior) say she was feeling "crazy" today because she ate a candy bar. Lydia said she was just awful that day, pulling the girls hair, stepping on their feet, pinching, all in the name of a "joke". Using a candy bar as an excuse for bad behavior. This girl is almost 11.

We have had ongoing issues with this teammate, but it's been quite a learning experience for Lydia...and myself.

amy g

Part of a longer report on increased understanding of unschooling, the rest of which is at "Getting it." Priscilla wrote:

I kept hanging on to dd's labels until I finally got it, that you meet your child WHERE THEY ARE. You don't look at anyone else's child or anyone else's parenting. You don't look at where any other child is, nor care what any one else thinks.

I'm happy for my almost grown child that I made the effort to change, to stop listening to the conventional world. I wasted time insisting it was okay to just do part of it (unschooling), or most of it for a while longer. And I held on to my exceptions because our situation was "a little different", and you people wouldn't quite understand if I tried to explain it to you.

Well, that was then. Now I can say that you (the list owners and the other really wise people who participate). Thank You! You DO know.

Alex Polikowsky:
Some people go to school, have Special Ed for many years, have labels and they still cannot do things they way they are "supposed to." Those will still carry all the harm from feeling less than, and broken. I would not want that for any child.

I saw that happened to my older brother and it really damaged him greatly. I don't think the scar ever healed in his soul.

In a heated discussion on facebook one day, Jenny Cyphers wrote something very peaceful:

"Our issue was SPD", [another participant] wrote that. At first I wondered what it stood for, then I was glad I didn't know. I get tired of people labeling their children. Every time I see it, it's the first thing that comes to mind in regards to that particular child. When I think of each of my children, I don't want those things to be what makes them a unique person.

There are all kinds of descriptors each of us could use for our kids. Choose the good ones, the ones that make them twinkle in our eyes. Even those ones don't fully describe a person. For a parent who has a synaesthesic child, don't let that be their full description. It's merely a part of how to describe that person, just as it would be to say that person has black hair and laughs a lot and knows how to paint beautiful water colors.

I get that there are things to describe our children that we are proud of and that they are proud of, but it does NOT change how to unschool. It doesn't change how to respect that child as an individual. It doesn't change how natural learning works.

I started seeing labels pop up, in regards to children way back when we started, but I only saw it in schooled families, now I see it in the unschooling circles and it saddens me that it's cropped up in the hearts and minds of people trying to do better for their children, educationally.

A day does not go by that at least 2 or 3 of my facebook unschooling friends writes about their (insert label here) child. Those are the ones who go on "hide" first. If that label of your child is so front and center in your eyes that it outshines all the rest of your child, where you aren't seeing your whole child and all their parts, that you must say so publicly, I can only imagine how that child will internalize that image of themselves. As if those are the terms to think about their very nature. It is the very definition of narrow minded thinking, or pigeonholing someone.

One of the reasons that I've continued unschooling is because I don't want to pigeonhole my kids. I don't want them lumped into a category. I want them to see endless possibilities and a wide range of abilities. The entire school system is designed to categorize children and then rate them based on those various categories.

Once out of that system, where is the need to do that?

—Jenny Cyphers

Even without naming the label...

In a discussion about a young child and Tourette's symptoms, and the little voices in our heads, I had written:

You don't want to become a tiny voice in your son's head shaming him for being ways he can't avoid. And even nicey-nice criticism or reminders can come back for 20, 30, 50 years as "something is wrong with you," in the little-voices gallery. [—Sandra Dodd]

Laura Endres responded:

And, as is the case with us *right now*, it can come back much sooner and quite unexpectedly.

Long story short our youngest son when he was between the ages of 3-5 exhibited some symptoms of what looked like Asperger's. I didn't even think that until a close friend gently suggested it. Back then, I sorta went through some denial and avoidance, and then became a bit fixated on it. I wasn't willy-nilly in talking about it with others, but I did explore what the suggestions were for kids with Asperger's, and I implemented some of them. We saw a naturopath, but we didn't seek a diagnosis or label. We made some dietary changes and I changed the way I interacted with him. I changed our expectations of how he'd navigate social situations, and I was more careful in where we'd go, when, and with whom. All those things helped.

But just the other day my oldest was telling his best friend about that, and he casually asked my husband, "What was it you thought Jonathan had?" Which led to Jonathan saying, "What do you mean I HAD something?" I wasn't there to help navigate that conversation. It was news to Jonathan that we'd ever considered something to be wrong with him. There've been several questions since - What kinds of things did I do? How long was I like that? What was it called again? What do you mean I couldn't go to some places? What would I do?

It's been very upsetting, and I regret that I let it consume us for a while. Alas, I cannot go back in time. Many of the things I learned about dealing with people who are very sensitive still serve me to this day. I never expect that a kid will (or will want to) talk to me, for example. I am very respectful of their space. BUT, even though it's been a long time (12 yrs) since that original period of worry and focus, it's affecting my son's self-esteem and view of himself NOW.


One problem with labels is that human states are very often transitory. A child might have good reason to be bad tempered because of circumstances or undiscovered ailment or growth pains (literal pain in joints from quick growth, or teething, or headaches).

Kirby was explosive, when he was younger. Kirby is not a BIT explosive now. He is the most patient and clear-thinking person in the family, in frustrating situations. Partly, circumstances were frustrating for him, going from being an only child to having two younger siblings. Partly, we helped him find ways to notice and cope. We paid more attention to making sure he wasn't getting too hungry, or wasn't feeling too powerless. To say "Kirby is explosive" is false. To say I had an explosive child is true.

Our friend Lilly was so shy as a young child that even though she had seen us at several LLL meetings and played with Kirby there, for her first two visits at our house, she didn't leave her mother's lap. She wasn't a baby; she was four or so. The third time she went six feet away and played. The fourth time and forever after, her mom could leave. It was good that her mom was cool about staying. Lilly is 20 now. She is not in the least bit shy. Lilly is not a shy person. Lilly was a shy person.

The real danger is "gifted." "Gifted" is a point on a curve, and curves are not constant, nor predictable. An early reader is no more likely to become a Shakespeare professor or lawyer than an early walker is to become an olympic gold medalist. Labelling a child "gifted" is not a gift at all.

Unschooling works the same way regardless of any of those factors. If the child is allowed to sit with mom or walk across the room, read or not read without pressure or fanfare, walk or not walk as he wishes, if his environment is kept comfortable (taking his personality, fears, needs into account when arranging his comfort) and if he has the means and encouragement and time and space to explore his ever-expanding world, he will learn.

If we split the unschooling group into parents of early readers and parents of later readers, would there be an advantage to that?

While it can be reassuring for parents to know they're not the only one, labels can be limiting.

Sandra Dodd
July 11, 2005 (on a forum that's gone; sorry)

The video is called "Advice for Parents of Autistic Kids," but it's what unschoolers have been doing, should be doing, with any and all of their children. This has been my point about labels. Give every child these choices and this respect, and this time and space. Let them play the way they want to.

I disagree with "self-regulation" (or any regulation), but otherwise, this advice will work with any unschooled child.

From a discussion about labels, and giftedness (link below), my writing:
Mothers get attached to labels they put on their child, because that makes one "the mother of a________" and then the label is hurting more than one person.

The worst example was a few years ago, with "indigo children". From another planet, or plane, someone was sending special alien children, through chosen parents, to change the earth. So when a mother became convinced that her child was an indigo child, it was all about how special *SHE* was. And anyone who didn't believe it or SEE it was considered too inferior to be regarded, but that's okay because those indigo children were going to redeem us somehow.

That was a huge waste of time and energy, and those kids were told they could do what they wanted to, because they were so special.

That's an example, not a suggestion that it's the very same thing. There are parallels.

There are curves of learning, and nobody learns at the same rate for a lifetime. Things will flatten out at some point. And if a child has been called gifted, when the curve flattens, that's when the pressure and shaming will start, no matter how much the parents swear in advance that it won't.

—Sandra Dodd
about a third of the way down all this,
December 2014, Radical Unschooling info

Jessica Hughes, when someone was attached to the idea that her child had PDA ("Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome"):
One of the best pieces of advice I found here was to really choose words carefully. I can't imagine anything positive that could come from labeling a child "pathological." Synonyms include morbid, diseased, compulsive, hardened, chronic, and obsessive. To look at an 8 year old - a child with years and years of growth, change, maturation, and learning ahead - and attach the idea that *anything* about them at 8 years old is a permanent and unavoidable hardened trait is illogical and unnecessary.
Jessica Hughes
(original topic was deleted, from Radical Unschooling Info)

Seeing Children Without Labels


Different Kinds of Intelligence

Condemnation—how to avoid it