The Double Edged Sword

I can never really get my head round the need people have to label their children.  OK, so I understand the immediate labels of ‘male’ and ‘female’; after all, gender is one of the first ways in which we categorise the world, but really, those labels, when you think about them are enormously troublesome.  Take ‘girl’, for instance.  It’s an insidious little label.  You wouldn’t think it would make so much difference, but before you know where you are you have fallen into a sea of pink frills and even more pink plastic, of hair bobbles and sit up nicelies and don’t get that dress dirties.  ‘Boy’ is just as bad.  Man Up.  Little Monster.  Beige and navy blue.

The big one for me, of course, is Down’s syndrome.  Even without the banner ‘red hair’ or ‘boy’, Sam has a stereotype to contend with every day; one that tries its hardest to lock him into loving everyone and music, regardless.  I lay the blame firmly at the feet of my mother.  Like generations of teachers before her, concerned for the wellbeing of a child (me), she was at pains to point out that we were in the business of proving everyone wrong, and I maybe took it a bit far.

The thing about these labels, though, is that we need them.  In a medical context, the diagnosis of Down’s syndrome meant that we, baby Sam and I, entered a protocol that checked him out for all sorts of things, his heart, his guts, his thyroid, and, as he grows, his eyes and ears and feet; anything, in fact, that might cause him trouble, or hold him back, or make life more difficult for him than it needs to be is under scrutiny.  I might find the number of appointments a drag, a hassle and a cause for fear, but they are there to ensure his health is as good as possible.

In my professional world, in education, the labels hold the key to all manner of things.    Understanding of why things aren’t progressing the way they ought.  Adjustments, special resources to make mainstream life a little easier, more copable.  Extra help.  These labels, the ones that unlock the treasure trove of additional funding are highly sought after.  Everyone, after all, wants the best for their children, and particularly those with Special Educational Needs.  There’s a tension, a balancing act to be had, a delicate wielding of a double edged sword.

There is always an undercurrent, though, always a story that hardly dare speak its name; a nameless, spectral guest at the feast, or elephant in the room if you prefer, whenever that label is applied, and its name is Blame.

It’s not very nice, is Blame.  He, or she, I can never quite decide, is a nasty piece of work.  S/he stalks about the place pointing the long, bony finger of accusation at whoever is the latest victim of displeasure and heaven help you if it’s you.  If you’re carrying a child and you happen to find out that they have the added benefit of an extra chromosome, BANG.  There you are.  Pointy pointy.  And there is no Get Out of Jail Free Card if the diagnosis is made post birth, either.  Then, instead of the subtle pressure of talk about risk, there is genetic counselling and further tests, but it all comes down to the same thing; just who is responsible, just who is to blame?

The strange thing is, though, that outside the world of the medical diagnosis, out there where most of us go about our business, the Blame Game works in a different way.  That finger, that nasty, long, bony accusatory finger needs no label to attract its notice there.  All it needs is a quirk, or a difference, or those moments when you tear your hair out in frustration that the child just won’t do as it’s told and it starts to wag.

Can’t cope.


Bad Mother.

And before we know where we are, we are fingering the labels again.  Poor child.  FSM.  Pupil Premuim.  ADHD.  Austism.  Naughty.  Even with all the negative stereotypes, the excuses, the lowering of expectations, the effect of over intervention, the censure of the behaviour and not of the child, we riffle our fingers through the pack, to find the one that will stick, to find the one that will let us off the hook.






I wonder what would happen if everyone stopped pointing the finger; if we stopped blaming each other and started working together?

Image taken from Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
Image taken from Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.

11 thoughts on “The Double Edged Sword

  1. Very good points you make here. I think labels are necessary insofar as they help us go in the right direction for finding help and making progress. But I cringe when they’re used to sum up a person, as if that’s all he or she is.

  2. Anthropology viewpoint: identity constructs, by/towards self/other, inclusion/exclusion.
    Linnaeus? Categorisation? Taxonomies of people? Interesting food for thought 🙂

    1. Yes – from a feminist historical standpoint, the gender label is a powerful one, a way of understanding the world around us – and a long lived one. As humans, we seek to understand the world around us, and labelling/naming/categorising helps us to do that. I’m interested in the job that these labels do, and the association with blame, Perhaps I could make that clearer? Make a little story up, maybe. *thinks*

      1. Emotional intelligence links stirs a thought.., ‘I’ statements versus ‘you’ statements. Frames of reference. Etc 🙂

  3. So thought-provoking – thank you. And of course if you resist the label, and try to just support the child as an individual, perhaps through fear of those pesky negative stereotypes, the accusatory finger can’t leave you alone – you’re “in denial”. Not to mention that other well-loved label : “mum”, used so freely by the offspring of others.. And then there’s the hierarchy of professional title-labels: does Educational psychologist trump speech therapist or Early support worker?Does paediatrician trump all? And “mum”? Hmm…..

  4. I’ve got enormously mixed feelings here.

    My kids are deaf. It’s a state of being that permeates everything about them. It’s a state of being that has its own language, its own culture, and its own way of thinking about this ‘disability’. Many deaf people have no truck with euphemisms like “hearing-impaired” – these Deaf people have seized the label, coloured it in, made it 3D, and turned it into a proper noun. They wear the label with pride, and defy the rest of the world to follow their example. Deaf people. Not people who happen to be deaf.

    I’ve been lucky. With one set of glaring exceptions, the front-line professionals who’ve supported my kids haven’t been interested in labels. Diagnoses, yes. Evidence-based specialist intervention, yes. Sitting down with parents to discuss and share ideas that help the child’s particular needs, yes. The inadequate shorthand superficiality of labels? Not so much.

    But have labels hurt my kids? God, yes. Not the ones you think, though. It’s labels like “outstanding” – and the demented pursuit of it – that have hurt my kids the most.

    The HT who forced my eldest son’s teacher to prioritise rapid, sustained progress in lessons, rather than let her implement his carefully planned, multi-disciplinary path to successful cochlear implantation.

    The ignorant Ofsted lead inspector without any relevant experience in the sector, whose report was taken as gospel by SENDIST tribunal, and thereby damned my child to a year in a ‘outstanding’, but utterly unsuitable school.

    The ‘outstanding’ mainstream schools we visited who blanched at the sight of my kids’ hearing aids, and tried to usher us towards the nice, friendly ‘satisfactory’ school up the road.

    The SIP who advised their school’s senior leadership team to blow a five-figure sum on a Mocksted to underwrite the chances of an ‘outstanding’ inspection – at the expense of funding the top-up speech and language therapy that kids like mine desperately needed.

    Deaf as a label? Fine. Outstanding as a label? Noxious, poisonous, corrosive crap.

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