"You're a poopyhead! Oh yeah, and I'm gonna kill you, too!"

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 20, 2010 06:00 AM

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When my 5-year-old gets angry he says things like "If you don't do X (give me dessert, buy me a toy, etc.) I am going to kill you."

I have no idea where he got this kill you idea. He doesn't watch inappropriate TV or anything like that. He will also follow this up with "you poopyhead" or some other variant of bathroom talk.

I tell him that it's not OK to say things like that. That it's OK to be mad, but he can't say things like that. It's still happening. Daily.

Any ideas?
From: Michelle, Boston

Hi Michelle,

There are two separate issues here. Let's deal with the bathroom talk first.

Developmentally, this is prime time for potty-mouth talk. It stems from the need to accommodate a social double standard. Think about it: On the one hand, we teach our kids to be proud of their ability to understand and control their body functions. At the same time, we teach them that their is not a nice thing to talk about.

There are two schools of thought on how to cope with bathroom humor. One is to limit the talk, beginning with the first time you hear it on the assumption that if you don't, it will only escalate, and sooner or later, get your child into trouble for talking this way, either with other parents or at daycare. The other strategy is to ignore it, on the assumption that it's a stage that will go away and that if you give it any attention, it will escalate.

 My advice is to go for the middle road: "I know you think this kind of talk is silly and your friends do, too. But it's not good manners. These are not words we use in our family because we value good manners." Does that leave her with the impression that it's OK to use this language with her peers? Yep. And I see no harm in that. At every stage of development, there are words that function as social currency within peer groups. While we always want to be clear on what our values are and to enforce them within the family, I don't believe that parents can, or should, censor the language children use with each other.

Saying, "I'm going to kill you," is a little different and it points out something that we all need to recognize sooner or later as parents: Just because we impose screen controls in our family doesn't mean the same controls are being exercised in the next family. Most likely, your child has learned this language from playmates, or playmate's siblings.

Children do not attach the same meaning to a phrase such as, "I'm going to kill you," or even, "I hate you," that we do. And it certainly does not mean you have a future serial killer on your hands.

What's important at this stage of development is to make it clear that verbal hostility is no more acceptable than physical aggression and to give a child a way to respond to it.

When my son was 6 and encountered this kind of language on the playground for the first time -- from children he didn't even know -- I was as stunned as he was. Researcher Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of Syracuse University, explained it this way: "Children this age have this innate drive to have an impact on their environment, even a negative one."

 OK, fine; that might be why children use these words. But what to do when they do?

Here's what I said about this in my book:

"The first time your child uses a word that offense you, ask him, 'Do you ever try to use words to see what people do when you say a word like that? Some words hurt feelings and this is one of them. It's not a good thing to say.'...One way to help a child is to tell her she can say words like that in her room with the door shut, so they don't hurt anyone's feelings. We can also get our young children away from 'I hate' [or 'I'm gonna kill you...'] by encouraging other 'I' statements that more accurately reflect the emotion they are feeling: "I'm so angry at you!"

I've never forgotten Honig's advice. When children  have such strong emotions, it's not enough to help them identify and label them. She wants to help them extend their communication skills. For instance: "It's not nice to tell me you hate me/want to kill me. If something is bothering you, tell me what it is."

That response still gets my vote.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.


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12 comments so far...
  1. Barbara - The LW has stated that she has tried your advice (reading between the lines, you only reinforced what it seems she's been trying, to no avail). You didn't address that. Why not?

    Posted by Phe January 21, 10 07:47 AM
  1. I think that a parent should consider implementing "time outs" or "consequences to bad behavior" (like taking a way something the child really appreciates) with a child that continues to use bad words. Both the time out and consequence for bad behavior should be well explained with a calm voice. It's the child's choice to be well mannered and to please the parent. Most children want to be pleased and be encouraged.

    Posted by rmg February 2, 10 04:59 PM
  1. A parent in my child's Kindergarten classroom went ballistic when she claimed another child used the work "kill" when talking about being angry at a classmate or friend- she claimed it was prompted by sick behavior and that the child was a bully and tried to rally other families to champion her cause around vilifying a five year old. In reading this article, I worry that both this parent (and the others who jumped on the bandwagon) were quick to over-respond.

    Here is my question: How does one counter a parent like this, who's behavior towards the child and other parents was ten times more bullying and negative? Most of this behavior took place outside of school and it made a lot of us uncomfortable at gatherings and birthday parties.

    Posted by In Xanadu May 1, 12 07:01 AM
  1. So, what does it mean when my two youngest kids start shouting "I'm going to kill you!" at each other in the middle of the grocery store, don't seem to hear my repeated requests that they knock it off at least until we get back to the car, and I, in a fit of frustration and an epic "bad mommy" moment, say, "I'm going to kill BOTH of you."

    I got a few raised eyebrows and more than a few chuckles from other harried mothers with young children. Still not one of my finer moments. But, they stopped, and when we got back to the car I apologized for not being the adult. Their response? "You were the adult, Mama. You just used kid words so we'd hear you." And so I forgave myself for not being perfect. My parenting goal is now to keep my sense of humor, and to raise kids who know I love them even when I'm having a "moment." It's going to have to be good enough.

    Anyway. I read these advice columns for ideas sometimes, but I have to disregard some of the comments. You can't always "well explain in a calm voice" or put a 4-year-old in time out during a 5:30 p.m. after work trip to Stop & Shop.

    Posted by Kate May 1, 12 07:55 AM
  1. Relax. Don't take it personally. Be firm. It's normal behavior.

    Posted by Danny Boy May 1, 12 10:28 AM
  1. Kids naturally like to argue. Why not teach them the principles of proper adult rhetoric, so they can articulate their arguments in a socially acceptable way? That way, when they're older, they know how to advocate for themselves when they have a legitimate reason to disagree with an adult.

    I don't see why she's focusing on the kinds of names that are being called, either. The child should be punished for name-calling instead of making a cogent point.

    Posted by AP May 1, 12 11:12 AM
  1. Oh my goodness! Poopy-head! I wonder how people with these questions will handle teen-ages.

    Posted by ME May 1, 12 11:15 AM
  1. "I don't believe that parents can, or should, censor the language children use with each other."

    I disagree. I believe it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children respect -- respect for authority, respect for their peers, and respect for themselves. Disrespectful language is always inappropriate.

    The traditional answer to pottymouth involved a bar of soap. Unpleasant, but not harmful and rarely repeated.

    Telling a five year old, "It's not a good thing to say," misses the point. He has already been told that. He KNOWS it is not a good thing to say. Moreover, he is learning that he can say literally anything without consequence. (Of course he will eventually learn otherwise. The lessons are harder when learned late.)

    Do the child a favor and set some limits. When he crosses these limits, banish him from polite company until he is ready to behave appropriately. If he needs to spend three hours alone in his room (with no electronics, TV, books, toys) to learn the lesson, then give him three hours alone.

    Posted by TF May 1, 12 12:43 PM
  1. A 5 year old does not yet understand "kill," but that is not what bothers me here. My 4 year old also says, "if you don't (blank) then I won't be your friend," and it's really the threat, of anything, that should be addressed. I explained to my daughter that she is not to threaten anyone, for any reason and that instead of starting out with "if you don't, then I won't" she should just try asking, "do you want to (blank)" or "can I blank," and try to get a direct answer. Sure, you should address killing and what it is and tell your child why it's not appropriate, but for a 5 year old who really doesn't know the difference, the focus should be on taking away the threats.

    Posted by Paige May 1, 12 01:42 PM
  1. To TF -

    You're right on the mark.

    I'm more than disgusted by the lack of manners teens/young adults exhibit these days because the fear parents have had setting strict/consistent consequences when the beasts were toddlers/children.

    Posted by AD May 1, 12 03:13 PM
  1. How ironic that I came to this article on a link from another boston.com article entitled: "Mitt Romney aide quits in face of anti-gay sentiment." It appears that it's not only teens and young adults who exhibit a lack of manners (or even basic civility) these days. Do you truly believe this is the result of not being given strict consequences "when the beasts were toddlers/children?"

    I agree with those who find this behavior pretty normal

    Posted by KJ May 1, 12 06:52 PM
  1. Children who have experienced being threatened tend to threaten back. I have been guilty of threatening my child a few times, eg. if you do this I'll take away that. Kids don't like feeling threatened. It's not prime parenting, in my opinion, to threaten a child. Naturally, when a child experiences a loss of power/security, they will attempt to turn the tables to see how that power works. When my children have said things like, "I don't like you," "I don't love you," "I hate you," etc, I tell them, "I can see that you're upset. Your voice sounds down. I'm sorry you are upset right now. I still love you." Then we might talk about solutions to the problem if it's appropriate, I might set a boundary and gently but firmly enforce it.

    The lady who tried to turn a community against a 5 year makes me sick. A grown-up bullying a child? I would ask her to consider the fact it was a little child saying it. Children often mirror what they live or have encountered, especially if it was confusing or hurtful. I'd ask her if she really wanted to heap more trouble on a boy who probably just needed some extra love.

    "It is when I deserve it least that I most need to be loved"

    Posted by Jaime Bower February 24, 13 01:13 AM
 
12 comments so far...
  1. Barbara - The LW has stated that she has tried your advice (reading between the lines, you only reinforced what it seems she's been trying, to no avail). You didn't address that. Why not?

    Posted by Phe January 21, 10 07:47 AM
  1. I think that a parent should consider implementing "time outs" or "consequences to bad behavior" (like taking a way something the child really appreciates) with a child that continues to use bad words. Both the time out and consequence for bad behavior should be well explained with a calm voice. It's the child's choice to be well mannered and to please the parent. Most children want to be pleased and be encouraged.

    Posted by rmg February 2, 10 04:59 PM
  1. A parent in my child's Kindergarten classroom went ballistic when she claimed another child used the work "kill" when talking about being angry at a classmate or friend- she claimed it was prompted by sick behavior and that the child was a bully and tried to rally other families to champion her cause around vilifying a five year old. In reading this article, I worry that both this parent (and the others who jumped on the bandwagon) were quick to over-respond.

    Here is my question: How does one counter a parent like this, who's behavior towards the child and other parents was ten times more bullying and negative? Most of this behavior took place outside of school and it made a lot of us uncomfortable at gatherings and birthday parties.

    Posted by In Xanadu May 1, 12 07:01 AM
  1. So, what does it mean when my two youngest kids start shouting "I'm going to kill you!" at each other in the middle of the grocery store, don't seem to hear my repeated requests that they knock it off at least until we get back to the car, and I, in a fit of frustration and an epic "bad mommy" moment, say, "I'm going to kill BOTH of you."

    I got a few raised eyebrows and more than a few chuckles from other harried mothers with young children. Still not one of my finer moments. But, they stopped, and when we got back to the car I apologized for not being the adult. Their response? "You were the adult, Mama. You just used kid words so we'd hear you." And so I forgave myself for not being perfect. My parenting goal is now to keep my sense of humor, and to raise kids who know I love them even when I'm having a "moment." It's going to have to be good enough.

    Anyway. I read these advice columns for ideas sometimes, but I have to disregard some of the comments. You can't always "well explain in a calm voice" or put a 4-year-old in time out during a 5:30 p.m. after work trip to Stop & Shop.

    Posted by Kate May 1, 12 07:55 AM
  1. Relax. Don't take it personally. Be firm. It's normal behavior.

    Posted by Danny Boy May 1, 12 10:28 AM
  1. Kids naturally like to argue. Why not teach them the principles of proper adult rhetoric, so they can articulate their arguments in a socially acceptable way? That way, when they're older, they know how to advocate for themselves when they have a legitimate reason to disagree with an adult.

    I don't see why she's focusing on the kinds of names that are being called, either. The child should be punished for name-calling instead of making a cogent point.

    Posted by AP May 1, 12 11:12 AM
  1. Oh my goodness! Poopy-head! I wonder how people with these questions will handle teen-ages.

    Posted by ME May 1, 12 11:15 AM
  1. "I don't believe that parents can, or should, censor the language children use with each other."

    I disagree. I believe it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children respect -- respect for authority, respect for their peers, and respect for themselves. Disrespectful language is always inappropriate.

    The traditional answer to pottymouth involved a bar of soap. Unpleasant, but not harmful and rarely repeated.

    Telling a five year old, "It's not a good thing to say," misses the point. He has already been told that. He KNOWS it is not a good thing to say. Moreover, he is learning that he can say literally anything without consequence. (Of course he will eventually learn otherwise. The lessons are harder when learned late.)

    Do the child a favor and set some limits. When he crosses these limits, banish him from polite company until he is ready to behave appropriately. If he needs to spend three hours alone in his room (with no electronics, TV, books, toys) to learn the lesson, then give him three hours alone.

    Posted by TF May 1, 12 12:43 PM
  1. A 5 year old does not yet understand "kill," but that is not what bothers me here. My 4 year old also says, "if you don't (blank) then I won't be your friend," and it's really the threat, of anything, that should be addressed. I explained to my daughter that she is not to threaten anyone, for any reason and that instead of starting out with "if you don't, then I won't" she should just try asking, "do you want to (blank)" or "can I blank," and try to get a direct answer. Sure, you should address killing and what it is and tell your child why it's not appropriate, but for a 5 year old who really doesn't know the difference, the focus should be on taking away the threats.

    Posted by Paige May 1, 12 01:42 PM
  1. To TF -

    You're right on the mark.

    I'm more than disgusted by the lack of manners teens/young adults exhibit these days because the fear parents have had setting strict/consistent consequences when the beasts were toddlers/children.

    Posted by AD May 1, 12 03:13 PM
  1. How ironic that I came to this article on a link from another boston.com article entitled: "Mitt Romney aide quits in face of anti-gay sentiment." It appears that it's not only teens and young adults who exhibit a lack of manners (or even basic civility) these days. Do you truly believe this is the result of not being given strict consequences "when the beasts were toddlers/children?"

    I agree with those who find this behavior pretty normal

    Posted by KJ May 1, 12 06:52 PM
  1. Children who have experienced being threatened tend to threaten back. I have been guilty of threatening my child a few times, eg. if you do this I'll take away that. Kids don't like feeling threatened. It's not prime parenting, in my opinion, to threaten a child. Naturally, when a child experiences a loss of power/security, they will attempt to turn the tables to see how that power works. When my children have said things like, "I don't like you," "I don't love you," "I hate you," etc, I tell them, "I can see that you're upset. Your voice sounds down. I'm sorry you are upset right now. I still love you." Then we might talk about solutions to the problem if it's appropriate, I might set a boundary and gently but firmly enforce it.

    The lady who tried to turn a community against a 5 year makes me sick. A grown-up bullying a child? I would ask her to consider the fact it was a little child saying it. Children often mirror what they live or have encountered, especially if it was confusing or hurtful. I'd ask her if she really wanted to heap more trouble on a boy who probably just needed some extra love.

    "It is when I deserve it least that I most need to be loved"

    Posted by Jaime Bower February 24, 13 01:13 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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