Have you ever heard the old saying, “Sticks and Stones may hurt my bones but names will never hurt me”? Do you think that is true?Haven’t we all been hurt by words or names others have used for us? Words have an amazing power to build us up or knock us down. A kind word and a smile can turn a day around while a mean, angry or derogatory word can send us into confusion and sadness. This is never truer than in the early years of child development.
In the three to five year old age range children are very focused on learning words. Their personal listening and speaking vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds. They are fascinated by words and will ‘latch onto” new ones as soon as they hear them. This is an especially important time to be sure that your child is hearing positive words and phrases about themselves and others. As you well know…if you use an angry word to describe your neighbor and you will probably hear your child repeating it soon afterwards. Yikes!
Interestingly, it is not always the angry or derogatory words that can have an impact on children. In first grade I was tiny…the smallest child in the class. I also was (surprisingly!) very shy and quiet. The teacher started calling me Ellen Churchmouse instead of my last name and my quiet demeanor. While on the one hand it could be seen as a “cute” nickname…it actually made me feel even smaller. Of course, this made me even quieter. But most of all it made me feel different and even ”not as good as” the rest of the class. It really was not until I started my early childhood education classes in college that I started to speak up in class…and look at me now…keynote speeches worldwide!
Help Your Child
Name-calling and labeling is a growing issue in schools starting as young as preschool. In the early years it can be seemingly silly words such as “banana-head” or ”big foot”… but these can still have an effect on the receiver. Probably the best thing you can do is to tell your child that most people like to hear their own name and not something silly they made up. Reminder him that if he would like to use a “funny” name for a friend that he can ask the friend if it is okay. Or they can even make up a name together that they both like!
Most young children do not know how to deal with name-calling. You can help our child by suggesting that if someone calls him a name he can say that he doesn’t like the name and will not listen unless the person uses his real name. (“That’s not my name. My name is Tom.”). Of course, he doesn’t have to fight back or even respond…he can just walk away as if he doesn’t know whom the teaser is talking to!
One of the main words young children use in name-calling is “stupid.” Often children don’t really know what the word means but they do know that it is not something nice to call someone or to be called. The basic message is that you are incapable and can’t do anything. For a young child who is just “learning how to learn” in school this is the ultimate taunt. This is probably one of the first words you can outlaw in your home. Explain what it means and discuss how it feels when someone uses the word. And then make it clear that this word will not be used to describe anyone!
There is a fine line between playful teasing and bullying. Sometimes this line is crossed when a child gets angry, feels threatened or insecure. That is when a tease becomes a taunt. Taking a moment to calm down can make all the difference in these sorts of situations. Instead of punitive “time out” for your child…you can suggest a “time in.” This can be a time and place where your child can go to calm down when he feels like he is getting upset and might be tempted to use name-calling and other angry words.
When you give your child a place to reflect during or after a conflict, you’re helping your child to calm down and to eventually be able to talk about the issue. You and your child might want to create a small, protected space that is a safe place to “chill out” when things heat up. With this emphasis on calming down instead of punishment…you will notice that the name-calling will begin to disappear. The goal is to teach your child the joy of caring and empathy. When he knows how wonderful it feels to care he will naturally do the right thing when interacting with others.