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PERHAPS IT’S BETTER NOT TO SEE SOCIETY’S WELL-MEANING LABELS

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We celebrated the weekend with what has become family tradition: the transfer of my nieces from their parents to my mom for an end-of-summer visit.

It created an impromptu family reunion, attended by my brothers and sister, their spouses, children and grandchildren. As always happens when we get together, talk eventually got around to what we were taught growing up - and the things nobody bothered to tell us.From my mother and father, we learned reading before we entered first grade, got help with math and social studies, received our first lessons on God and honesty and truth. They told us we weren't allowed to squabble and we believed them. Mom showed us how to sew, and under Dad's tutelage we learned to change tires and fix cars.

The things they didn't tell us are the ones for which I am most grateful.

They didn't tell us that because they were blind and "handicapped," they couldn't do some things other people's parents did. Instead, they taught us about potential - the possibilities we could aim for and usually hit.

They also didn't tell us that we were low-income and therefore "at risk" for evils like delinquency, low self-esteem and more. That realization didn't hit until we were much older.

Instead, when we wanted something extraordinary, they helped us find ways to raise the money, like the school trip I took to Mexico when I was 15. They helped me get a summer job driving a motor newspaper route (I grew up in Idaho and got my license when I was 14).

The world we grew up in was an inviting place, doors wide open and beckoning. Maybe it was a state of mind, but it was "a pretty, great state."

The weekend's nostalgia dovetailed nicely with a conversation I had Friday with a high school psychologist.

We were talking about something else, but the conversation got around to the cost of hammering home the message to children that they are underprivileged, at-risk or in some other way victims of circumstances they don't control.

It happens all the time at the hands of bright and well-meaning adults who provide very necessary and laudable programs and services to children who are "at risk" for a plethora of social ills.

The programs are essential and helpful - sometimes even lifesaving.

But I cannot shake the feeling that the message itself has a price tag we as a society have not even begun to understand or measure.

The psychologist spoke of programs targeted for youths who have emotional and behavior disorders.

"We know why certain children are selected to participate," he said. "But we don't tell them."

The children benefit without the stigma inflicted by their peers and even self-inflicted.

It makes sense.

Children are bright; they know if they're getting free school lunch because their families don't have a lot of money. Older children have probably already figured that out. Kids are pretty savvy about such things.

Finances are a family matter, and I believe that even if children know their financial situation is less-than-ideal, they should not be given the impression that the whole world knows it.

As a reporter, I too hammer home the messages of risk to children who don't come from wealthy or fully functional (two separate problems) families.

Sometimes I write about specific children and their participation in programs that carry labels, like "victims of abuse" or "poor" or whatever. I'm going to have to think about that.

It's a confusing question. By saying poverty seems to increase the chances of involvement in crime, gangs, use of alcohol and drugs or teen pregnancy, do we create a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do we in some way kill hope and limit potential?

I know that victimization or poverty must be addressed. I'm just not sure how important it is to label the package.