In our front yard is a tree that can only be described as evil. Yes, that’s right…our family has named it the evil tree and we have called it that for years. It’s nickname is “E.T.” . This tree deserves its title as it is like no other tree that I have ever seen. It is unsightly, it does not grow properly, and it serves no useful purpose. I am probably offending all the environmentalists right now, but truthfully, I do not know of one earth loving, green person who would be caught dead hugging this tree. Some of you may think me to be exaggerating when I describe this sorry excuse for a tree but I assure you that I am not.

         
        
First, the tree does not grow as it should. Approximately twenty-one years ago, our subdivision was built and almost each home in the neighborhood had one main tree planted in the front yard. All of those trees are presently huge, green, glorious trees with huge, thick trunks that several children could climb on simultaneously. They are pretty to look at, they provide much shade and just add so much to the front yard of these homes. Our evil tree was planted at exactly the same time. It has grown about two feet in twenty years. I am serious, just two feet. It has leaves unlike any tree that I have ever seen. The color is that of mud mixed with dried blood…just a terrible looking color. What’s worse is that the leaves themselves look old, dried out, and cracking even as they are blooming in the early spring and they keep that same dying but never dead look about them all throughout the summer. The leaves are so sparse that one can see the twisted, gnarly ugly trunk of the tree all year long, not just in the winter. No one knows what kind of tree it is. It bears no fruit, no berries, it is just a real mystery. Recently, we had some branches trimmed from some of the trees in our back yard and as the tree service man was leaving and walking back to his truck, out of curiosity I pointed to “ E.T.” in the front yard and asked him what kind of tree it was. He just stared at it for about thirty seconds and said “I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, but I have no idea maam, I’ve never seen a tree like that.”  I knew it…case closed…the tree is simply evil and deserves its name.

 

        In short, that tree is forever branded. It is thought of as ugly and evil, we call it that, we think of it in that way, and even though we joke about it, none of us ever hold out much hope that “E.T.” will ever be much different than it is and always has been which is a tree without beauty and no real future of ever being thought of as wonderful in any way. Do you know what though? No real harm is done because E.T. is just that…a tree. Not having any feelings, there exists no tragedy in us labeling it. Children however, are a different story. Just as we have dubbed this tree with a negative nickname, just as we have written it off as never really amounting to much, we sometimes are guilty of doing the same thing to young people as well. Oh we may not be as blatant in the outspoken criticism of them, calling them ugly and evil but society often times communicates approval or disapproval of children and teens in a variety of ways.

 

        Something that I have witnessed over the years is the unfortunate plight that youngsters some times find themselves in once they have made a mistake or have managed to get themselves into some sort of trouble. Whether it be at school or at home, a young person who has committed any number of infractions can either intentionally or unintentionally be thought of as a kid without much going for him or her, or as a trouble maker who needs to be carefully watched and even kept away from other kids lest that young person corrupt others. This sort of “labeling” on the part of the adults in that young person’s life is a reaction that we seriously need to guard against in our own lives. As parents, as teachers and those in authority over children, we need to fight against falling into a presumptuous pattern of thinking that could perhaps put kids in boxes as “good kids” or “bad kids”. This is a trap that folks fall into all the time in prematurely categorizing children in the home, in the school, and in the church. I am not suggesting that this is always intentional or malicious on the part of adults in general, in fact, it is often simply a natural reaction of protection that a parent feels as they desire to distance their own children from what they view as potentially negative influences. I do submit however that in that distancing, we often crush the spirit of the youth that is struggling as they begin to feel shunned and labeled. Kids are not dumb and they know very clearly if they are thought of as a “bad kid” who is viewed with contempt. They know if they are not being given the benefit of the doubt. Another example is when children have experienced some sort of trauma in their home or family. Perhaps one of their siblings has been arrested or their parents have just broken up and there is a stigma attached to them that they feel in a very real way. There are simply countless situations and scenarios that can cause a horrible feeling of being singled out because of something that has occurred in that kid's life. They feel the cold shoulder, the awkward stare, and are aware that they are being talked about.  A crucial truth that has proved itself over and over is that often times once a child is convinced that they wear the "troubled"  label like a bright red letter on their chest, they either consciously or subconsciously begin to act out even more or sink into a melancholy state of depression. Their thought process is “If others think I am a terrible or a damaged kid already and I can’t change anyone’s mind on that, I might as well live up to it.”  This of course is skewed logic on their part but I have seen this type of thinking played out repeatedly over the years.

 

        I have been on both sides of this coin as a teacher and as a parent. When I taught third grade for several years, I would constantly need to check myself to make sure that I was not mentally labeling certain students who proved to be greater challenges than others. I would need to question myself as to my feelings and biases that I might have towards a student who pushed the envelope and tested me on an almost daily basis. I just didn’t want to ever begin thinking about any given child as “bad” because I knew that once I began attaching that label to even one student, that my chances of truly reaching that kid’s heart would be greatly diminished.

 

        On the flip side, as the parents of the Hastings’ kids who managed to land themselves into their share of trouble both at home and at school, my husband and I also occasionally experienced this labeling process from the viewpoint of the parents whose child was dubbed as “bad news” or a kid to stay away from. Our challenge in those cases was to encourage our sons and daughter to repent from their wrong doing, then press on with their heads held high and continue to honor God in their lives. The answer certainly is never to become bitter and quit which is often times the result or outcome of a child going through a difficult period. When we respond correctly, God can actually bring so much good from periods of struggle as others can see a clear testimony of perseverance and triumph in the midst of doubt and skepticism.

 

Being labeled…not too damaging for a tree in a front yard but for a child who runs past that tree, the outcome can be quite different. All of us, both adults and children possess good and bad traits and characteristics within us. We each have the capability of doing right and doing wrong, of heading down a straight and productive path or somehow getting off course. Let’s purpose to attempt not to brand or categorize those who do find themselves headed the wrong way. Those individuals need our help, not our judgmental spirits that cause us to whisper about them and turn away. Perhaps if we just think about this topic some more, we will be more careful and cognizant of when we might be stumbling into that snare of mentally labeling someone.

 

I am looking out the window at “E.T.” as I wrap this up and although she usually looks very droopy and sad, she actually looks like she may be perking up a bit on this bright sunny day. Perhaps she sees me staring out at her and maybe, just maybe it has caused her to stand a bit taller…who knows? I  am being facetious right now about our tree, but something that is very serious is the fact that kids understand very well both shunning and acceptance. They know if they have been placed in a box with a label on it.

 

 Do you know a young person who is struggling right now?
Are you finding that you are categorizing him or her?

Decide to refuse to fall into the trap of labeling them.
If you do, you will be a help and not a hindrance 
And that child will never forget you!