5-y-o: "I'm gonna kill you!"

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 13, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

My son just used " I'm going to kill you " to a school friend because he got to the swing before my son. My son is 5 and I have no idea where he got that from and it's upsetting. Can you please help me find ways to correct this the right way.

From: Barbara, Los Angeles

Barbara,

You are not raising a serial killer. This is play. Children this age do not attach the same meaning to words that we do. That doesn't make it any more acceptable or pleasant to hear, but as he gets older, it is not possible, or even prudent, to try to censor the language he uses with peers.

That doesn't mean you can't try to influence it. Consider a conversation that might go like this:

Mom: "It sounded like you were really angry with X at the swing."

Child: "No...."

Mom: "Well, you said you were going to kill him."

"Mom, I was only playing!"

"You mean you were pretending to be angry? You were kind of teasing him....?"

"Yeah."

"I wish you could think of something else to say instead of, 'I'm gonna kill you.' Saying that makes some people feel sad and upset."

Brainstorm -- hopefully with a bit of humor -- alternatives. In another conversation, talk about why that language offends you so much, about wars and wanting a world of peace.

Where did he get this particular phrase from? He could have heard it on the playground from older kids, from sibs of playmates, from a babysitter. Be sure people over whom you have some control -- and I'm thinking especially babysitters -- know that that is not language you want used in your son's earshot.

It's important for him to be able to distinguish between what's appropriate language, grammar, usage, etc., with adults and what's appropriate with peers. Another conversation to have with him is about different rules for talking to teachers, parents, grandparents and other adults, and playmates. Ask him for examples.

With any words or phrases that offend you ("stupid" and other "s" words will gain popularity for him soon), tell him: "Some words hurt feelings. This is one of them. It's not a good word to use." Or, "This is a word that hurts my feelings. You can think it, but please don't say it to me." That gives him tacit approval to use it with friends -- because he will. It makes him feel powerful.

FYI, my personal favorite antidote: "Go into the bathroom and close the door and shout 'stupid!' into the mirror as many times as you want. That's the only place in the house where you can say it."

If you find your son saying "I'm gonna kill you" often and/or with a lot of emotion behind it, consider the possibility there is another issue going on with him and talk to your pediatrician.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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3 comments so far...
  1. Oh no! I don't like your antidote -- as a math tutor and someone who helps people with computers, you have no idea how often I have to stop people from calling themselves stupid! Sure, with some kids it may make them stop and laugh -- but far too often, I see the problem solving stop when someone says "I'm too stupid, I can't get this." Curiosity and persistence pay off; smart/stupid labels deflate and discourage.

    Posted by Patricia Hawkins June 13, 12 11:14 AM
  1. I'm unclear why it is desirable for kids to be using abusive language with their friends? The first response, "Some words hurt feelings. It's not a good word to use." seems better to me.

    I understand that it is common for middle-school kids to physically and verbally assault each other. But why should adults give their tacit approval?

    Posted by TF June 13, 12 12:53 PM
  1. It might make sense to explain to the kid how other people might interpret "I'm going to kill you!"

    Mom: When you say "I'm going to kill you," some people might not know you are kidding. They might think you are actually going to kill them, and then you could get into a lot of trouble (sent to the principal's office, have the police called, whatever). If you're very angry with someone, there are other words to use (explain whatever words are socially acceptable to you.)

    Sadly, in these days of Zero Tolerance, the bigger worry should be that another person will make the same leap his mother did in writing in, and turn him into the authorities for being "a psychopath." There is no room for childish hyperbole in our society nowadays.

    Posted by AP June 13, 12 02:57 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. Oh no! I don't like your antidote -- as a math tutor and someone who helps people with computers, you have no idea how often I have to stop people from calling themselves stupid! Sure, with some kids it may make them stop and laugh -- but far too often, I see the problem solving stop when someone says "I'm too stupid, I can't get this." Curiosity and persistence pay off; smart/stupid labels deflate and discourage.

    Posted by Patricia Hawkins June 13, 12 11:14 AM
  1. I'm unclear why it is desirable for kids to be using abusive language with their friends? The first response, "Some words hurt feelings. It's not a good word to use." seems better to me.

    I understand that it is common for middle-school kids to physically and verbally assault each other. But why should adults give their tacit approval?

    Posted by TF June 13, 12 12:53 PM
  1. It might make sense to explain to the kid how other people might interpret "I'm going to kill you!"

    Mom: When you say "I'm going to kill you," some people might not know you are kidding. They might think you are actually going to kill them, and then you could get into a lot of trouble (sent to the principal's office, have the police called, whatever). If you're very angry with someone, there are other words to use (explain whatever words are socially acceptable to you.)

    Sadly, in these days of Zero Tolerance, the bigger worry should be that another person will make the same leap his mother did in writing in, and turn him into the authorities for being "a psychopath." There is no room for childish hyperbole in our society nowadays.

    Posted by AP June 13, 12 02:57 PM
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About the author

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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