Rerun: Truth in labeling

I’m away today so am republishing a classic post. Please visit the original to comment.

While changing planes at Washington Dulles I picked up a discarded Washington Post and read its particularly good Health section. I found the article Gifted? Autistic? Or Just Quirky? about the labeling of children to be quite thought provoking:

Increasing numbers of children are given increasingly specific labels, ranging from psychiatric and neurological diagnoses such as Asperger’s and attention-deficit disorder to educational descriptors including “gifted” and “learning disabled.” And parents who in the past might have fought ferociously against giving their children labels — particularly for once-stigmatized conditions such as learning disorders — sometimes actually seek such diagnoses for their children to get them extra time on tests, to receive insurance reimbursement for treatment, to qualify for extra educational services or simply to have a name (and treatment) for a problem.

The article then discusses the pros and cons of labeling. My attitude toward labeling is largely negative, but situation-dependent. Here are some problems:

  • Diagnoses are often wrong and the conditions themselves frequently ill-defined and overlapping
  • Labels tend to stick even after a child grows out of whatever they had
  • Labeling authorizes discrimination –positive and negative
  • Labeling can provide a handy excuse for lazy parents, teachers and caregivers who don’t bother to understand a labeled child’s individuality
  • Labeling ‘medicalizes’ non-medical conditions, such as what we used to call “boyhood”

Sometimes a label is good, though

  • When drug or behavioral therapy is appropriate. (Although the definition of “appropriate” needs its own post)
  • When it’s helpful for a child to understand him or herself or for a parent to give advice to a teacher on how to work with a kid

Parents can sometimes feel forced by their school into having their kids tested and labeled. In many cases it’s worth the trouble to resist that pressure. I also worry that if enough kids get labeled it puts the unlabeled at a disadvantage: they don’t get extra time on tests, and they get a smaller piece of the fixed pie of educational resources.

Plus, as they say in the Incredibles, ‘If everyone’s special, no one is.’

Please visit the original to comment.

September 10, 2010