Q: My daughter is picking up inappropriate behavior, such as using violent language (e.g., “I want to cut your head off”) and name-calling, from a boy at her preschool. Should I talk to her teacher?
A: Letting her teacher know the issue exists is a good start, but at least as important is deciding how to address the issue from your end. When our children step out into the world, forcing us to relinquish our roles as their sole teachers, the whole new set of “lessons” they learn from other children can be quite disconcerting. All children, including the boy at your daughter’s preschool, are trying to make sense of this complex world, and violence and aggression often top the list of confusing issues they struggle to understand. With our lifetime of exposure to violence, hurt, and loss, hearing something like, “I want to cut your head off,” triggers powerful emotions in us, but it means something very different to our children with their limited understanding. We tend to process confusing issues through discussion, while children often lack the language skills, so they may instead simply repeat what they’ve heard or observed in an attempt to work through it. Unless we cut our children off from society, we can’t prevent exposure to such unpleasantness, but we can influence how the exposure impacts their values and self-view.
The first and most important step is remembering that children need to feel accepted, not judged or shamed, while they grapple with confusing and uncomfortable issues. Taking a more playful approach allows them to explore such topics safely. For example, you could reply to, “I want to cut off your head,” with something like, “Ouch. How about we try that with a head of lettuce instead? I’m pretty attached to my head.” If she threatens you in anger, you could simply redirect the conversation without giving the violent words too much power or intrigue. A simple, “Sounds like you’re really upset,” models preferred language and invites a different response. You could also ask questions to help her explore and understand her own thoughts and feelings (e.g., ”How did you feel when __ said that name (or phrase)?”, “Why do you think he said that?”, “What could he have done instead?”, “What could you do if he uses that name (or phrase) again?”) Even better, you could meet your daughter on her own level through pretend play with something like, “Let’s play dolls and pretend like Rose calls Puppy a name.” You could then let her experience both the roles of Rose and Puppy, allowing her to fully process the issue in the safety of play.
Remember all children who engage in such behavior are just imitating something they’ve heard or observed elsewhere and trying to make sense of it. Viewing all children, especially those engaging in poor behavior, as innocent little people wanting so much to belong in and understand this huge and overwhelming world can help us be the accepting guides they so desperately need.