Friday, May 15, 2009

labeling theory, an anecdote and reaction

In a couple classes we talked about labeling and how people might conform to expectations or roles.  This is relevant in issues of crime and deviance, and also in the process of illness and mental illness. Here is a student’s reflection on her own family’s experience with labeling, and my comments follow the anecdote in this purple font.

For the second reaction paper, I’m going to write about the labeling theory.  When we talked about this in class, I was very interested and wanted to know more.  I have always thought that my brother was a product of labeling.  He was always labeled as a problem child.  

Growing up, my brother was always overweight.  My father constantly made references to his weight problem.  My parents would chastise him for eating too much at dinner and would compare him to me.  I tended to be very small and I know it bothered him that he wasn’t thinner.  Not only did he have a weight problem, but he also had problems in school.  This led to yet another comparison between him and I because I always excelled in academics.

In school, my brother was always labeled as the slacker who ran with the wrong crowd.  He never received good grades and felt that his teachers labeled him as someone who was never going to amount to anything.  He claimed that his teachers knew about him before he was even their student.  Because he felt this way, my parents took him out of Mt. Zion schools and paid out of area tuition to send him to Macon schools.

While attending Macon, my brother once again felt that his teachers singled him out and didn’t like him.  He never felt that his grades were the ones that he deserved but rather, punishments for his teachers’ dislike.  He was frequently absent and our parents stated that he was just not trying hard enough.  They got into many fights over his lack of achievement which later led to him transferring to yet another school.  He attended this school, but was kicked out for lack of attendance.  Eventually, he received his GED on his first try without classes.

My brother got into drugs heavily and we later found out that it started when he was 13.  My parents struggled to help him overcome his addiction and often wondered where they went wrong with their parenting.  In fact, they bickered so much about him and his well-being that they eventually divorced.

I firmly believe that my brother became his label.  Growing up, my parents made constant references to his weight.  This did not encourage him to lose weight, but actually discouraged him.  To this day, he remains overweight.  He was also labeled a problem child early on.  These labels became a stigma to him.  He never felt like he was smart enough, thin enough, or good enough.

My brother and I are very different people.  I would argue that I am also a product of labeling.  I am several years younger than my brother.  I saw the problems that labeling caused my brother, so I became everything opposite.  I never had a weight problem, always excelled at school, and chose not to do drugs.  I didn’t want my parents to be disappointed in me the way they were with my brother.

As a social worker, I believe that it is our duty to help end this cycle.  We need to teach our youth self-confidence. It should also be taught that it is okay to make mistakes.  We need not dwell on them, but find a way to make sure that we learn from them.  High expectations from parents are a fact of life.  However, there is a point when they are not expectations, but stigmas placed on them.


Your personal story brings to mind a few critical ideas I want to comment upon.

First, if we see something bad going on, it’s imported to describe it as a specific situation in a specific context, and help people see how the situation or context was involved with the problem behavior or failure. For example, a parent might say, “You ate a tremendous amount of food today, you must have been feeling really hungry today. I’ll try to serve you less food tomorrow so you won’t overeat, do you think that would help you?” This would be better than saying, “You always overeat, and you’re getting fat. A fat person like you shouldn’t eat so much.”  In the first example, the parent is commenting on the overeating as a specific one-time event, and is also suggesting a solution, and is offering to be part of the solution (by serving less food).  The parent is also asking the child to be engaged in the change in behavior by asking, “do you think that would help you?”  It might be even better to just ask an open-ended question to let the child say something about their eating behavior on that specific day and what might help change behaviors at future meals.

Second, your story reminds me of the importance of holding high expectations of everyone while at the same time having a realistic understanding that people won’t reach your expectations. If teachers have low expectations and assume the worst of their students, the students will be “allowed” by the teacher’s expectations to perform at the level the teacher had signaled them to perform to. If a teacher holds all students to high expectations, students will attempt to achieve those higher expectations. Yet, when holding high expectations, I think it’s important to allow failure, and let students know that high expectations must be coupled with patience, support, and a high tolerance for people not achieving the highest marks. When we have high expectations and show too much disappointment or displeasure when people can’t achieve what we asked of them, then we will tend to encourage frustration and discouragement. The correct way to apply high expectations is to keep up an optimistic and accepting attitude.  “Oh well, you didn’t quite reach the mark this time, but you came pretty far toward it and you tried hard. Let’s see what you can do next time, and what I can do to help you get closer to the mark we’re striving to reach. I’m confident you’ll eventually get it.” 

When we’re disappointed with ourselves, or with our spouse or a child, we can communicate our disappointment, but we need to make the feeling related to a specific instance of behavior, and not raise issues of a person “always” doing something we don’t like, or “being” the wrong type of person. In the present instant of time we can’t do something about a problem that is “always” going on, can we?  We can only modify what we are doing in the present instant.  And, it’s hardly fair to blame us for being wrong. We can only control what we do, not what we are.


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