“You imbecile!” yelled fourteen-year-old Mary at her annoying seven-year-old brother, Billy. Now Billy didn’t know what an “imbecile” was, but by the tone of his sister’s voice he knew he didn’t want to be one.
What’s in a name? The point is not so much the word the child uses — much of the time kids don’t know what their insults mean. The deeper issue is insensitivity to another’s feelings. Part of discipline is helping your child learn empathy. Help her imagine how the other person feels when he is called that name. Appeal to her sensitivity to her own feelings and those of others as the first step in changing the behavior. Bear in mind that a mocking voice – like saying “I love you” in a way that would make someone feel small – can be just as hurtful.
Model an apology. Even adults sometimes resort to name- calling. We’ve caught ourselves occasionally yelling, “You’re being a brat!” in frustration when a child is being willful. If your children hear a steady stream of “you’re lazy,” or “you’re stupid,” they will pick up on the habit, since it seems to be an acceptable way for parents to vent emotion. Name- calling is a putdown and it deserves an apology that builds the child back up. When we hear that “brat” word come out of our mouths, we back up, hug the child, ask her to forgive the name-calling, and reassure her that we love her and think well of her. Then we talk about how we don’t like what she did, and we go on to correct her behavior.
Pull up putdowns. To preserve the self-esteem of fragile children, one of your jobs as house disciplinarian is to patrol your domain and stamp out put-downs. Point out put-downs the instant you hear them: “That’s a put-down.” If your children already know that you won’t tolerate put- downs in your family, they simply need a reminder, not a sermon or a tirade. Elaine told her children how devastating these statements are, especially to younger children. She explained how calling someone an unkind name makes them angry and therefore completely unwilling to change the behavior that triggered the name calling. She instructed: “Instead of yelling ‘you’re stupid’ at your little brother, get down at his level, look him square in the eyes and firmly say ‘That was a stupid thing to do, and I know you’re smarter than that. Now help me clean up the mess’.” (Hopefully, parents realize this is a wonderful line for them to use also.) This not only stops the argument before it starts, it also models alternatives to name-calling for the little brother to use when playing with his friends.
Garbage in, garbage out. To mute what comes out of the mouths of children, control what goes into their ears. Certain words get into a child’s memory and seem to stick forever. Even though we carefully police our television, somehow our children managed to be exposed to Beavis and Butthead, in our opinion one of the most denigrating and potentially dangerous shows ever to get into the minds of kids — a major put-down to human intelligence. Over the next few weeks we heard “butthead” as if it were a socially-acceptable form of direct address. Once we stopped overreacting and realized that the actual meaning of the word to kids and teens is something like “dumb” or “crude”, the word lost its punch and we ignored it (but still banned the show itself). Eventually, the word “butthead” died a slow death, at least in the confines of our home.
In the past, one way to punish children for name-calling has been to make them write “I will not say butthead” a hundred times. We discourage this method because it plants the word even deeper into a child’s memory. (After reading this section, what word do you remember the most?) A better correction would be to have the name-caller write a note of apology, without using the offensive name.