Alberto Soler and Concepción Roger are psychologists and have just published their second book, Children without labels, in which they explore the effects of the use of labels in education and encourage parents and educators to banish them and treat children with respect for their rights and needs. We spoke with Alberto Soler about the most used labels, about the effect that we have placed on children in confinement, about the child phobia and about the idea that educating is getting our children to always obey us.
Labeling is like our autopilot, why do you think this happens?
Tags are part of the normal way the brain works. The reality around us is tremendously complex; there is a lot of information. The way we have to handle all that information is by simplifying it in some way. One of those forms of simplification is labels. It is something that is very useful, that works very well for our day to day. The problem is when we put those labels on people who think, who feel.
What are the labels children receive most often and what are the effects this can have?
In the book we have compiled the ones we see most frequently. One is that of good and bad, which is placed even from the moment of the hospital, when they ask you if it has turned out good or bad. If she cries, it has turned out bad, if she is quiet, it has turned out good. Besides, there are the labels of spoiled, spoiled, liars, jealous, tyrants, disobedient, dependent. But the ones that are most frequent and those that at least concern me the most and are most harmful to me are those associated with gender. We do not treat boys and girls in the same way from the moment they are born and in the end the differentiated treatment that we give them limits their development possibilities and ends up having an even greater impact on inequalities of rights and opportunities both in childhood and in children. Adulthood.
In the book you pick up a quote from Carlos González who wonders how it is possible that we call spoiling to hold the child too much and not to hit or treat badly. Why do you think that happens?
It is because we have a vision of what education is perhaps too based on obedience. We have like a modus operandi whereby a girl or a boy who always does what we expect of them is like the successful product of education. And those who have critical, autonomous thinking, who have their own will, who are loud, would show educational failure on our part. What we really have is fear of failing in our educational task. And models like that of Supernanny, that of Big Brother come to mind, who are there to warn us that if we do not have a strong hand at the moment in which it plays, what happens happens, when in reality the evidence we have is the opposite: those children who appear in these programs are rather the result of an upbringing or negligent or authoritarian. It has nothing to do with the affection that has been given to them.
During confinement, the children have also received labels: those who have been more comfortable and have been calm have been called champions, those who have carried out regular confinement have been labeled as unbearable or capricious and also epidemiologically they have been called ‘supercontagators’. What effects has this had on childhood?
If you put a label on someone it ends up conditioning how that person behaves. The dichotomy that we have established between the champion children and the unbearable ones is very unfair, when the situation we have experienced has been tremendous and has caught us all out of place. I always like to remember that children are just another victim of all this. That they have behaved like champions or as unbearable many times not depending on them but on the circumstances that they have had around them.
We have been very lucky and our main problem was not finding yeast in the supermarket at some point. But there have been cases in which one of the parents has been ill, someone has lost their job, there has been a death in the family … Of course, it is normal that it has been unbearable if they have had to live all that. The problem is that we are labeling normal emotional responses. A situation as extraordinary as the one we have experienced has been very difficult for everyone to handle, especially for children who have not had the resources to handle it. It is not fair that we are judging your adaptation to something so strange.
In social networks you have shared messages on the subject of bars being open and parks closed as a sign of a society that is not taking into account the rights and needs of children. Does it seem like this to you, that we live behind the backs of childhood?
Yes, totally and absolutely. And this has done nothing other than to show what has already existed before. Just as at the health level, now with the pandemic, the shame of so many years of cuts and divestment has come out; The same has happened with the treatment of children. For months pets could go out for a walk, their owners of course also had that privilege, but families with children did not have it. For a long time they have been bombarded with academic tasks when what they needed more was an emotional accompaniment to allow them to cope with the situation.
Children continue to have that label of ‘supercontagators’ on top when the evidence goes rather the opposite. When I show my concern for the rights of the child and for the school, I do not speak as much – as I do – about the children who live in their semi-detached house with a garden. I’m talking about the children for whom school was the only normal thing that happened in their lives, for whom school was the place where they ate the best. Those children from unstructured families that we have taken away from school, which was the only opportunity for integration and escape, are really suffering. We have not bothered about them at all.
What should the situation be like now that it is possible to leave and face the return to school to compensate for all the damage that confinement has been able to do to children?
I have no idea about how the return to the classroom has to be. None of us know, we are hitting hard. What I am clear about is that we have to follow the evidence and take into account that health, as defined more than 50 years ago by the World Health Organization, is not only the absence of disease but is also a state of complete well-being on a physical, social and emotional level. If we do not have well-being in these three areas, it cannot be said that we have health. So not everything goes in order to avoid a possible contagion. Not everything is valid if we are depriving of basic rights, for example education or adequate care for children, if we are not satisfying their emotional needs for contact with peers, exercise in the open air, relationship with teachers … We have to try to see the image completely. Of course, it is a priority at the health level to avoid infections, but avoiding infections has to take into account what the needs of children are.
The education model that you propose in your book seems overly demanding on parents because it means swimming against the current, since the environment does not help. How to make this model more focused on the needs of children also take into account those of the parents and not impose a greater burden?
Indeed, it is about being aware and doing the best possible in an environment that does not accompany. For example, it is not easy to maintain a good diet when you are bombarded with messages from a food industry that favors obesity.
In fact, when you speak in the abuse pyramid, in which one form of abuse is the obesogenic diet, it must be borne in mind that this often does not depend on the parents.
Yes, we cannot ask for heroics. We have to take into account society, the environment in which we are. But a certain rebellion or a certain awareness of what children really need is not bad. Right now we live in a society that has not put the value in childhood, a society child phobic: children bother. We have to take into account the environment, the reconciliation difficulties we have and based on that try to do the best we can. Our goal is never to put pressure on families because they all do the best they can with the resources they have. But they also need many times to hear the message that what you feel is real, that you don’t have to do something with which you feel strange acting because society pushes you in that direction, there are other options.
I have seen many families with small children who told them that your child sleeping with you is not normal, with four months you have to take him out of your room. And those families with all the pain in their hearts locked the baby in their room at night, gave him his stuffed animal and took out the timer and waited a while because they had been told it was the best. Those families were heartbroken to hear through the door how their baby cried and cried non-stop. We wanted to tell them that it is normal for them to feel that and that they do not have to go through there, that there is nothing wrong with sleeping with their baby. That is what these families need to hear, that this intuition they have really is true and that no matter how much they are told otherwise, the evidence is different. Our objective is not at all to blame families but to give them information and tools so that they can educate their children in a truly free way and above all by freeing them and freeing themselves from the labels that condition their development.