Thursday, September 5, 2013


In Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son, Lori Duron goes in search of a label that will capture her son C.J.’s “disconnect between sex and gender,” and preference for “girl stuff.”  She finally finds the term, “gender non-conforming,” on Wikipedia, which is defined as “a phenomenon in which pre-pubescent children do not conform to expected gender-related sociological or psychological patterns and/or identify with the opposite gender.”  In her own words, the author writes, “a weight had been lifted off my shoulders: there was a name for C.J.’s behaviors and way of life.”  The following article is inspired by, but is not specific commentary on Duron’s book, which simply got me thinking about how I feel about labels.  (Please note that “gender non-conforming” is NOT a psychological diagnosis.) 

As a psychologist, who spends much of her time assessing children, I have to say:

I hate labels. 

There is something horribly reductionist about taking a complex human being, with unique constellation of personality traits, strengths, abilities, preferences, and challenges and smacking a label on her that speaks only in terms of deviation from the norm. 

We are still in the infancy of psychology as a science.  We have blunt instruments to understand these complex human beings. The labels that we’ve generated are flawed.  I find it rare that a child cleanly fits into a particular category.  More often than not assessment is a messy business of trying to determine what of a handful of diagnoses best captures an individual so that, if the child needs support to be successful at home or at school, the child will receive the appropriate support. 

Diagnosis is a necessary evil—a label that provides access to services—a key not to who your child is, but to the gate that separates your child from the things that will improve the quality of his life.  At it’s very best, diagnosis provides parents with a sense of relief—this is what’s going on for my child, now I have a word for it, a way of speaking about it to others, and an avenue to pursue.  Behind the gate there are support groups, advocacy groups, accommodations, modifications and treatments.  But at it’s very worst, the label becomes all that people see.  Images from the media or based on past experiences are projected onto the individual.  Stereotypes form.  Assumptions are made.  Judgments are cast.  Personhood is lost. 

There is no shorthand for describing an individual, which is precisely why, though I hate labels, I love assessment.  Each report I write is my attempt to tell someone’s story, to create a richly textured narrative that attempts to capture the ineffable.  It takes a lot of words to do this.  I usually can write no less than 20 pages….and even then I am aware of all that is missing. 

I know there are people who skip to the end to read the labels.  Sometimes I acknowledge them first, so that we can then move past them.  Sometimes I save them for last, so I can embed them in a context that minimizes their import.  Either way, my goal is to have a parent emerge from our conversation with a better understanding of her child…and feeling that her child is understood. 

This post was inspired by the memoir Raising My Rainbow by Lori Duron, in which she shares her journey raising a "gender creative" son.  Join From Left to Write, and online book club, on September 5 as we reflect on Raising My Rainbow.  As a member, I received a copy of the book gratis for review.  


Jennifer Wolfe said... often do so much more harm than good. In schools where I've worked, I see the anguish of parents wanting to do just as you say - identify what's 'wrong' with their child. Sometimes that diagnosis can help, but often it locks the kids into a status for a very long time.

northsidefour said...

I've been trying to un-label my twins since the day they were born. It happens, at nine people still say to me things like, "oh she's the fun one!" or, referring the child in glasses, "she's the smart one". I thought we were passed this, I was so wrong.