How to Harness the Power of Labels

One day not too long ago, when we picked up our boys from Sunday School after church, one of the teachers pulled me and my husband aside. She waited until the kids ran out of earshot. “That Henry,” she said, referring to our youngest who is just five, “He’s a smart one! I couldn’t believe the insights he was sharing during our Bible story. I was really impressed with his thoughtful answers!”

We were still smiling when we gathered our two kids into the car. Henry is used to playing second fiddle to his big brother William, who knows how to read and can rattle off mental math problems just for fun. Henry has bemoaned the fact that he’ll never be taller, faster, or smarter than his big brother. Maybe that’s why my husband Max made a point of telling Henry what his Sunday School teacher had said about him on the ride home.

“Henry, did you know that your teacher is so impressed with how smart you are? She told us how well you did during the Bible lesson when we picked you up after church!”

“Really?” Henry said.

“What did she say about me?” William wanted to know.

“Well you weren’t in her class, William, but I bet she would have said the same thing about you!” Max reassured him.

I didn’t think any more about it until it was time for lunch. Sunday lunches are pretty casual at our house; Max and I scrounge for leftovers and usually make sandwiches for the boys. William learned how to make his own ramen recently and proudly set about doing so.

I was just about to start making something for Henry when I noticed he had beat me to the refrigerator. I watched him take some slices of cucumber out of a container and put them on a plate. I stood back as he took a piece of bread and cut it into four squares, placing each one carefully in the toaster oven.

“Watcha doin’?” I asked him at this point.

“Oh, just making some lunch,” he said as he buttered the squares of toast and topped each one with a slice of cucumber.

I tried not to let my amazement show over this sudden display of independence from a kid who usually wants me to do everything for him. How quickly he internalized the kind word from his teacher, and how quickly his actions followed suit! He lost no time in living up to his new label!

In this life we wear many labels. They are given to us by our parents, our teachers, our peers, ourselves. They can come in the form of a careless comment or a deliberate word. And labels have power over us: we choose to rise up or sink low to make them true.

Understanding the power of labels can have a big impact on our relationships with others. Consider:

Your friends

We are friends with a person for a reason, but we don’t often name and share what we value about their friendship. When a friend lifts us up by calling out what they see in us, be it our warmth, our great listening, our easy laugh, or our wise advice, we remember it and are deeply touched.

Your spouse

Chances are, your opinion of your spouse is the only opinion they care about. Imagine how meaningful it would be to name and affirm their gifts and talents as you see them. “Honey, I love how you’re so ____!” When we name and share what we love about our spouse, it cements our marriage by bringing us closer together.


How we talk to ourselves matters. That voice in your head can bring you down and keep you down, or it can build you up by reframing negative labels. Instead of “I’m so lazy,” how about “Today I chose to rest.” Or how about changing “I’m such a worrier” to “I’m a very caring person.” Not to say that we’re perfect and there’s nothing we ever need to change, but we do ourselves a disservice when we wallow in our self-imposed labels. By reframing our negative concepts, we extend ourselves grace.

Your kids

They may or may not believe you when you name the things you love about them (“You’re just saying that because you’re my mom and you have to” I remember telling my own mother once!) But it’s important to name them anyway. It lets your kids know that you see them, understand them, accept them, and love them. Call them generous, thoughtful, caring, persistent, kind, creative, helpful, trustworthy, adventurous. Speak truth into their lives and watch them rise up to it.

And, most importantly, God has labeled us as well. God calls us his children, his heirs, his beloved, his chosen ones, his bride. May we love others out of the overflow of His love for us.

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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