This article originally appeared on the former Barnes and Noble Experts page.
Written by: Ellen Booth Church
We have all heard the saying, "Sticks and Stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." But 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 3 to 5-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, use an angry word to describe your neighbor and you will probably hear your child repeating it soon afterwards!
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 very shy and quiet. The teacher started calling me "Ellen Churchmouse" instead of my real name. While on the one hand it could be seen as a "cute" nickname, it actually became a taunt that children would use to try to get me to start talking. 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- a keynote speaker!
Helping 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 even these can still have an effect on the recipient. 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. Remind him that if he would like to use a "funny" name for a friend, 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 your 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 other 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!
"Stupid" is Not a Nice Word!
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, and it is probably one of the first words you should 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!
Have a "Time-In" Instead of a "Time-Out"
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 are helping him 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.
Good children's literature is perhaps the best way to start a conversation about name-calling and bullying with your child. Often a child has an easier time talking about what is happening to a character in a book than in his own life. Here are some excellent choices to get the conversation going!
How to Be a Friend: A guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them by Laurie Krasny Brown, Marc Tolon Brown (Little Brown) ISBN-13: 9780316111539
Arnie and the New Kid by Nancy Carlson ISBN-13: 9780140509458
Carla’s Sandwich by Debbie Herman ISBN-13: 9780972922524
King of the Playground by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor ISBN-13: 9780689718021