Who we love, where we live, what we eat, who we elect and what we earn are just some of the factors informing the labels used to typify the fundamentals of human behaviour.
This rapidly changing, diverse world is giving way to an ever-growing list of labels based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, fashion, diet, physical appearance, the list goes on. As illustrated by sociologists’ ‘Labelling Theory’, an individual’s self-esteem, self-identity and the language used to categorise them are inextricably linked.
The terms attached to us by society, influence our self-concept, steering our thoughts and actions. It is therefore vital we prioritise robust guidance for our children and young people in establishing a healthy understanding of their identity.
Plugged into the rest of the world, today’s younger generations are immersed in the latest local, national and global trends - social, cultural and technological and naturally start to consider their place in society and develop a sense of self worth.
Whether scrolling on social media, flicking through channels, shopping online, connecting to a webinar, downloading a podcast, reading, walking, breathing, the labels are there, impacting on their beliefs, ideals, behaviours, self-confidence and informing future life choices.
Negotiating this complex landscape of multifaceted identities can be daunting, especially where technological advancements leave all of us more open to discrimination. Although this prejudice can heighten our sense of belonging to a group, pervasive exposure to stigma can result in feelings of shame, fear, anxiety and general poor health.
As educators, it is our duty of care to provide a secure foundation from which our young people can step into adulthood with the confidence and ability to be who they want to be without internalising any prejudice that might be aimed at them. I’ve composed a list of three actions that could be taken to empower young people to establish a strong, authentic sense of self.
The power of the name
If there is any label we should apply to people, it is their name. Calling someone by their name is one of the quickest and easiest ways to help individuals feel part of a community. I know it may seem obvious, but we need to make time to learn our CYP’s names and encourage the respectful correction of mispronounced/incorrect name/misspelt names. Undermining the importance of pronouncing learners’ names accurately is a form of discrimination which reflects the implicit and explicit biases we often hold. Giving everyone the same right to their individuality and helping them to feel comfortable with who they are, starts with learning their correct name.
Policies that empower the adults to talk
How many of the CYP in your care are transgender, gay, lesbian? If your answer is none, my next question is, how do you know? Or even if you answered 3, how do you know there aren’t more? Policies should encourage practice that normalises candid discussions around race, gender, sexuality, politics, class, physical and mental health and so on, by a diversity of role-models who humbly exude pride in who they are. As with all decisions, if we are careful and thoughtful in the way we deliver key messages, ensuring we ourselves are well-versed in these topics, then our CYP can begin to confidently formulate an informed understanding of their own identity. Part of our role as educators is to open doors regardless of whether anyone’s knocking.
Policies that empower CYP to talk
Above all else, we need to get our children and young people to a stage where they are comfortable to ask questions, share their thoughts and express themselves without fear of rejection. Of course, as the adults, the experienced humans, we need to lead the way. Our CYP are naturally curious about the world and need space to ask questions and engage in discussion around the differences they notice in themselves and others. This dialogue, when facilitated effectively, could encourage, an empathic view towards our various identities, the rejection of prejudice and development of positive attitudes about themselves and others.
We can provide our children and young people with the necessary tools to live comfortably within themselves, unashamed and reassured that labels won’t define their trajectory in life. So, as the adults let us ‘catch up’ with social change because above all else, the most prominent source of the strength our CYP need to be who they are, is the unconditional love, respect and fearless pride of the adults who care for them.