By: Holly Kretschmar & Julie Gamberg
My seven-year-old son doesn’t curse, but he does use language I don’t like. For example, he “hates” people and things, like some kids at school, a teacher, reading, and pretty much all vegetables. I feel like “hate” is an extreme word and it’s creating a bad atmosphere at home. I’m trying not to have a rule against every little thing, and we already have a rule against cursing, but I’m thinking maybe I should just make “hate” (and a few others) a curse word, too. I’m curious as to what you think I should do.
We admire the fact that you’re handling this issue so thoughtfully. And we think your instinct to avoid having too many rules is a good one; A house full of rules teaches kids obedience but obedience only – it doesn’t allow them to practice their own judgment. That said, we all have trigger words that get under our skin, and we understand how the use of a heavy, negative word can grate on your ears.
Because you have a son, it’s particularly important to help him express a range of feelings. Boys in our culture are often allowed to express angry, aggressive feelings such as hate, but aren’t given space for other feelings, such as fear and sadness. Honing in on sadness, disappointment, fear and loneliness will help a boy avoid suppressing these emotions. The goal should be teaching kids – and especially boys – to be ‘emotionally intelligent’; The latest research shows that ‘EQ’ is critical to overall success in life.
You know your own child best; the most important thing is to help him express whatever feelings are buried under the catchall “hate”. Try to help him express himself with more accuracy and subtlety. Wait until your son says he “hates” something that you suspect he actually has complex feelings about, such as a teacher or a classmate (let’s skip vegetables for this conversation). Then, assuming you have time to talk with him, begin by re-framing his sentence, using a more appropriate word than hate. For example, “OK, it sounds like you’re having a really hard time with your reading tutor.” Listen with curiosity and a lack of judgment about his issues. Reflect back what you hear, each time trying to pinpoint the feelings that your son is experiencing, moving from the general “hate” to a more specific language. Is he scared of being ridiculed at reading time? Angry about perceived unfairness? Bored or frustrated?
The conversation might look something like this:
Son: I hate my reading teacher!
Parent: OK, it sounds like you’re having a really hard time with Ms. Murphy.
Son: She’s so mean! And she yells!
Parent: That sounds kind of scary (you’re taking a guess here).
Son: Yeah, I guess. But she’s not allowed to hit us. It’s against the law.
Parent: So when she yells it almost feels like she wants to hit you – it’s that scary!
Son: Plus none of my friends has to go see her.
Parent: Oh, so it sounds like you feel lonely. Or maybe embarrassed?
Son: Maybe, yeah.
And so on, helping your son to identify his specific emotions. At the end of the conversation, articulate his feelings in a sentence that encompasses what he’s experiencing. In this way, the discussion becomes an education about the words we use to describe feelings, and helps him learn that when he has a strong reaction to something, he may be feeling many things at once. Helping your son name his emotions will help him navigate relationships in his life now, but even more so later, in the workplace, with potential partners, and as a parent himself.
Finally, if you find that certain words get under your skin and make you upset or angry (in a previous post we talked about how tweens can aggravate parents’ nerves), make sure to take a deep breath and remind yourself that your son is in the midst of a developmental explosion. He’s moving from little kid to big kid and learning so much so quickly right now. You will be a wonderful guide for him if you can ground yourself before having these conversations.
Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.
You can email them with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Photo Credit: kayepants]