Thumbs down on "Little Devil" as a nickname

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

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Dear Barbara,

My question is regarding a name that my mother-in-law uses very loosely toward my 22 month old. When my daughter does typical toddler things my mother-in-law calles her a "little devil." I feel that this is not an appropriate term to use at all, especially toward my daughter and directly to her. I have told my husband that I do not want her saying this and have asked him to speak with her. He thinks that it's not a big deal; I think he just doesn't want to address this with her. I am a little out spoken but I feel I should not be the one to address this topic.

Thank you
From: CJW, Providence, RI


Dear CJW,

I agree that this is not appropriate, even if your MIL means it as a term of endearment. Here are two reasons why your husband may want to rethink his position:

Nicknames have a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. At 22-months, your daughter may not understand what "little devil" means, but it won't be too long before she does. Somewhere along the line, when she wants to do something naughty -- age 4, 6, 10? -- she may say to herself, "Well, they think I'm a Little Devil, anyway, might as well live up to it....."

Nicknames have a way of sticking. Down the road, your daughter may well wonder, "What awful thing did I do to deserve that name?" and resent grandma for giving it to her.

Anybody got stories of nicknames like this that have turned out to be mistakes?

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18 comments so far...
  1. The best tactic is "OK, it was funny once, now that's enough."

    It doesn't sound horribly offended, it lets the person save face in that you are assuming (or at least affecting to assume) that they think they are clever or funny, but it just comes off badly.

    Posted by di July 13, 12 08:03 PM
  1. I can't believe this is a serious letter. I was called nicknames that were not flattering as a child and it didn't damage me. I think the daughter-in-law is a little over the top worrying about this.

    Posted by patches2 July 15, 12 08:57 PM
  1. I have one sister, who when the children were born loved to come up with insane nicknames for them. Each time she tried with mine I would just look at her and say "they have a birth certificate with a name on it, use it and nothing else" To this day they are the only ones who never got one of her "pet" names and don't cringe when she calls out to them in crowds, please understand they are all grown now. To say the others resent her nicknames would be to put it mildly. I am sure your Mother-in-law does not wish to chance hurting her relationship with your daughter long term over something like this.

    Posted by eileen July 16, 12 08:40 AM
  1. My MIL calls my son a little devil too; it's never bothered me, to be honest. I have bigger battles to fight with them about other issues. She laughs every time she says it and so does he. My sister, since the day she learned to speak, has always called me Sissy. We're in our thirties and she still calls me that. My son has a name that could easily be shortened to a nickname, but we call him by his full name. Of course, we also call him Peanut Butter, so who knows what will happen?

    For me, tackling a nickname issue with my MIL would be a waste of breath. I have other boundaries I have to draw with my in laws and nicknames are the least of it.

    Posted by T's Mummy July 16, 12 09:24 AM
  1. My sister's god mother always called me Laura the Horror of course pronounced with the good ol' Boston accent. They still call me that and laugh and joke....doesn't make me feel any better now than it did then. I would object to her using that name and anytime you actually hear it interject right then. I wish my mom had done it then.

    Posted by Laura July 16, 12 11:14 AM
  1. Don't take things so seriously - it's used in the same way as "little rascal", "young scamp", and the like. My daughter was variously (and affectionately) addressed as "Miss Trouble", "little bits", "puppy-dog", and even "sausage", and none of them proved especially self-fulfilling. She responded happily to any of them, and to several others, and was not noticeably traumatized. Relax!

    Posted by alien57 July 16, 12 11:22 AM
  1. That was my dad's nickname for me when I was little! I'm an adult and I'm perfectly fine, though I still have a knack for good-natured mischief and harmless pranks.

    I'd be more concerned if it's meant in a way that's denigrating the kid, the parents, or implies that the kid is actually bad/bratty/spoiled/in need of mental help for not meeting an age-inappropriate behavioral standard. My parents, needless to say, did not allow OTHER people to call me a devil. They meant it in good fun, but they couldn't know the intentions of others.

    Posted by AP July 16, 12 11:51 AM
  1. The LW doesn't say it's a nickname, but something she uses in context to describe a particular behavior. Are we never supposed to say anything negative to our children, or make any attempt to dissuade undesirable behavior? If they dump their spaghetti on their heads, should we not call them silly? If it's past bedtime and they don't want to go, should we not call them sleepyhead? If they're being disagreeable, should we not call them crankypants? Are we so afraid of stigmatizing our kids that we should forget to be parents?

    Posted by geocool July 16, 12 02:01 PM
  1. Regarding nicknames that turned out to be big mistakes:
    As a child, my next-door neighbors had a 3rd child unexpectedly. Her given name was Caroline but her parents and everyone else called her "BooBoo." A sign of growing up for us kids was realizing that the name didn't come from the Yogi Bear cartoon. It was like figuring out the joke the adults all shared. It wasn't until Caroline went to college that she was able to shake the nickname.

    Posted by Joan Meyer July 17, 12 08:56 AM
  1. My father always called me Moira (pronounced similiar to Laura with M) the Horror. Still says it to this day and it doesn't bother me in the least. In fact I thought it was down right hilarious when a good friend from college named Laura was nicknamed the same thing by her father. I've always seen it as a silly term of endearment.

    Posted by Moira July 17, 12 03:15 PM
  1. I can't believe (well, yes I can) that there was a comment about how parents are so afraid of ever saying anything negative. Most are not, they are just considerate of how they do it. The parent did not say she was against dissuading undesirable behavior, just about calling the kid a name--and one which to many people has religious implications--to do it. If you feel you must label the person "crankypants" at the moment instead of labeling the behavior itself "you're being cranky" the least one can do is limit the labeling to the immediate moment and not carry it forward out of context.

    If they're sleepy and you call them sleepyhead, fine. But if the kid falls asleep during church one day and from then on their family nickname is Sleepyhead...all the time, in front of everyone, until they are however old they are that they finally have the gumption to tell you to knock it off? No.

    Posted by di July 17, 12 03:46 PM
  1. "Are we so afraid of stigmatizing our kids that we should forget to be parents?"

    Sadly, in today's society, yes people do forget

    If this child is actually being treated differently and in a negative way than anyone around him, then yes, I can see your point. But it doesn't sound like it.

    If this child grows up to be a "devil", it certainly isn't going to be because Grandma called him a "Little Devil".

    Posted by jd July 18, 12 07:04 AM
  1. I have to agree with geocool that the LW doesn't say it's a nickname.
    There is a big difference between a nickname and just using the term. Imagine, "Little Devil, it's time for dinner!" "Little Devil, do you want to go on the ferris wheel?" That's a nickname.
    Child pours milk on the cat and you say, "oh, you little devil." Not a nickname, and not such a big deal.
    I think that occasional use in response to particular toddler behaviors is not a big deal and doesn't warrant a big reaction. If it were to start becoming a true nickname, perhaps you'd have cause to speak to her.

    Posted by maryc July 18, 12 12:49 PM
  1. When I was being greedy or bad my Dad would call me "Veruca", after that selfish girl in Willy Wonka or "little Skeksis" (those vulture-like evil creatures in the Dark Crystal). They weren't nicknames, just descriptions of my behavior at the time in the hopes I would try to correct myself.

    Posted by sms75 July 20, 12 10:05 AM
  1. All of us have issues with our in-laws and we have to be wise in which battles we choose to pick because the reality is that we can't expect to change more than a very limited amount of their behavior. If this is really the biggest problem you have with your in-laws, then great, tell them to change. But I have a hard time believing that, so like a few of the other posters I suggest the CJW relax and live to fight another day.

    Posted by alexy July 21, 12 10:41 AM
  1. How often does MIL say "little devil"?
    Doesn't sound like a big deal, especially if she is very loving and kind to your daughter.

    Posted by Janna July 21, 12 06:10 PM
  1. I do think it's easy to overreact when you have a toddler. I remember when my daughter was little, my parents were big on saying "bad girl" if she did something wrong. It made me cringe ("so old-fashioned! you can only say behavior is bad not the child") but in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter -- I'm happy that my daughter got to know her grandparents. She's a pre-teen now and not scarred for life. Unless your MIL is one of your child's caregivers, I would let it slide and be confident it will be OK...

    Posted by 3xmomma July 22, 12 05:11 PM
  1. I agree with the husband: this is not a big deal. It is not her nickname, it is something being said when she does certain things. And "Little Devil" isn't even new or unique: my siblings and I were called this 30+ years ago when we played silly pranks.

    Really though, if it bothers LW so much then yes discuss it with the MIL. But I disagree with Barbara that it's going to have some self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Posted by mm July 23, 12 02:11 PM
 
18 comments so far...
  1. The best tactic is "OK, it was funny once, now that's enough."

    It doesn't sound horribly offended, it lets the person save face in that you are assuming (or at least affecting to assume) that they think they are clever or funny, but it just comes off badly.

    Posted by di July 13, 12 08:03 PM
  1. I can't believe this is a serious letter. I was called nicknames that were not flattering as a child and it didn't damage me. I think the daughter-in-law is a little over the top worrying about this.

    Posted by patches2 July 15, 12 08:57 PM
  1. I have one sister, who when the children were born loved to come up with insane nicknames for them. Each time she tried with mine I would just look at her and say "they have a birth certificate with a name on it, use it and nothing else" To this day they are the only ones who never got one of her "pet" names and don't cringe when she calls out to them in crowds, please understand they are all grown now. To say the others resent her nicknames would be to put it mildly. I am sure your Mother-in-law does not wish to chance hurting her relationship with your daughter long term over something like this.

    Posted by eileen July 16, 12 08:40 AM
  1. My MIL calls my son a little devil too; it's never bothered me, to be honest. I have bigger battles to fight with them about other issues. She laughs every time she says it and so does he. My sister, since the day she learned to speak, has always called me Sissy. We're in our thirties and she still calls me that. My son has a name that could easily be shortened to a nickname, but we call him by his full name. Of course, we also call him Peanut Butter, so who knows what will happen?

    For me, tackling a nickname issue with my MIL would be a waste of breath. I have other boundaries I have to draw with my in laws and nicknames are the least of it.

    Posted by T's Mummy July 16, 12 09:24 AM
  1. My sister's god mother always called me Laura the Horror of course pronounced with the good ol' Boston accent. They still call me that and laugh and joke....doesn't make me feel any better now than it did then. I would object to her using that name and anytime you actually hear it interject right then. I wish my mom had done it then.

    Posted by Laura July 16, 12 11:14 AM
  1. Don't take things so seriously - it's used in the same way as "little rascal", "young scamp", and the like. My daughter was variously (and affectionately) addressed as "Miss Trouble", "little bits", "puppy-dog", and even "sausage", and none of them proved especially self-fulfilling. She responded happily to any of them, and to several others, and was not noticeably traumatized. Relax!

    Posted by alien57 July 16, 12 11:22 AM
  1. That was my dad's nickname for me when I was little! I'm an adult and I'm perfectly fine, though I still have a knack for good-natured mischief and harmless pranks.

    I'd be more concerned if it's meant in a way that's denigrating the kid, the parents, or implies that the kid is actually bad/bratty/spoiled/in need of mental help for not meeting an age-inappropriate behavioral standard. My parents, needless to say, did not allow OTHER people to call me a devil. They meant it in good fun, but they couldn't know the intentions of others.

    Posted by AP July 16, 12 11:51 AM
  1. The LW doesn't say it's a nickname, but something she uses in context to describe a particular behavior. Are we never supposed to say anything negative to our children, or make any attempt to dissuade undesirable behavior? If they dump their spaghetti on their heads, should we not call them silly? If it's past bedtime and they don't want to go, should we not call them sleepyhead? If they're being disagreeable, should we not call them crankypants? Are we so afraid of stigmatizing our kids that we should forget to be parents?

    Posted by geocool July 16, 12 02:01 PM
  1. Regarding nicknames that turned out to be big mistakes:
    As a child, my next-door neighbors had a 3rd child unexpectedly. Her given name was Caroline but her parents and everyone else called her "BooBoo." A sign of growing up for us kids was realizing that the name didn't come from the Yogi Bear cartoon. It was like figuring out the joke the adults all shared. It wasn't until Caroline went to college that she was able to shake the nickname.

    Posted by Joan Meyer July 17, 12 08:56 AM
  1. My father always called me Moira (pronounced similiar to Laura with M) the Horror. Still says it to this day and it doesn't bother me in the least. In fact I thought it was down right hilarious when a good friend from college named Laura was nicknamed the same thing by her father. I've always seen it as a silly term of endearment.

    Posted by Moira July 17, 12 03:15 PM
  1. I can't believe (well, yes I can) that there was a comment about how parents are so afraid of ever saying anything negative. Most are not, they are just considerate of how they do it. The parent did not say she was against dissuading undesirable behavior, just about calling the kid a name--and one which to many people has religious implications--to do it. If you feel you must label the person "crankypants" at the moment instead of labeling the behavior itself "you're being cranky" the least one can do is limit the labeling to the immediate moment and not carry it forward out of context.

    If they're sleepy and you call them sleepyhead, fine. But if the kid falls asleep during church one day and from then on their family nickname is Sleepyhead...all the time, in front of everyone, until they are however old they are that they finally have the gumption to tell you to knock it off? No.

    Posted by di July 17, 12 03:46 PM
  1. "Are we so afraid of stigmatizing our kids that we should forget to be parents?"

    Sadly, in today's society, yes people do forget

    If this child is actually being treated differently and in a negative way than anyone around him, then yes, I can see your point. But it doesn't sound like it.

    If this child grows up to be a "devil", it certainly isn't going to be because Grandma called him a "Little Devil".

    Posted by jd July 18, 12 07:04 AM
  1. I have to agree with geocool that the LW doesn't say it's a nickname.
    There is a big difference between a nickname and just using the term. Imagine, "Little Devil, it's time for dinner!" "Little Devil, do you want to go on the ferris wheel?" That's a nickname.
    Child pours milk on the cat and you say, "oh, you little devil." Not a nickname, and not such a big deal.
    I think that occasional use in response to particular toddler behaviors is not a big deal and doesn't warrant a big reaction. If it were to start becoming a true nickname, perhaps you'd have cause to speak to her.

    Posted by maryc July 18, 12 12:49 PM
  1. When I was being greedy or bad my Dad would call me "Veruca", after that selfish girl in Willy Wonka or "little Skeksis" (those vulture-like evil creatures in the Dark Crystal). They weren't nicknames, just descriptions of my behavior at the time in the hopes I would try to correct myself.

    Posted by sms75 July 20, 12 10:05 AM
  1. All of us have issues with our in-laws and we have to be wise in which battles we choose to pick because the reality is that we can't expect to change more than a very limited amount of their behavior. If this is really the biggest problem you have with your in-laws, then great, tell them to change. But I have a hard time believing that, so like a few of the other posters I suggest the CJW relax and live to fight another day.

    Posted by alexy July 21, 12 10:41 AM
  1. How often does MIL say "little devil"?
    Doesn't sound like a big deal, especially if she is very loving and kind to your daughter.

    Posted by Janna July 21, 12 06:10 PM
  1. I do think it's easy to overreact when you have a toddler. I remember when my daughter was little, my parents were big on saying "bad girl" if she did something wrong. It made me cringe ("so old-fashioned! you can only say behavior is bad not the child") but in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter -- I'm happy that my daughter got to know her grandparents. She's a pre-teen now and not scarred for life. Unless your MIL is one of your child's caregivers, I would let it slide and be confident it will be OK...

    Posted by 3xmomma July 22, 12 05:11 PM
  1. I agree with the husband: this is not a big deal. It is not her nickname, it is something being said when she does certain things. And "Little Devil" isn't even new or unique: my siblings and I were called this 30+ years ago when we played silly pranks.

    Really though, if it bothers LW so much then yes discuss it with the MIL. But I disagree with Barbara that it's going to have some self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Posted by mm July 23, 12 02:11 PM
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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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