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.
From: Michelle, Boston
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.
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