Like many kids, my son says unexpected things that provide a steady source of entertainment. “I love you more than the biggest number,” is one of his charming proclamations. But I was not amused when, at age four, his adorable turns of phrase were joined by the occasional brutal barb. First, he announced that he wanted a new mommy. Then, he declared that he liked his daddy more than me.
Feeling dejected, I explained that his words made me feel sad. While he promised not to do it again—showering me with kisses—it wasn’t long before the insults returned.
According to Melanie Vanier, a child psychologist in Halifax, his behaviour is normal. “Preschoolers only think of themselves, not of how their words might hurt other people’s feelings,” she explains. “They don’t have that capacity yet.” Concern for others, along with the ability to control emotions, is just beginning to develop around age four—behind their burgeoning vocabulary.
This is something Sarah Fulton,* a mom of four in Toronto, understands well. For most parents, hearing mean words can sting, but Fulton is unfazed when her four-year-old daughter, Lucy, hurls insults. “She’ll say I’m stupid, or the worst mom in the world,” says Fulton. Lucy’s words are typically triggered when she’s tired or doesn’t get her way.
“I know she doesn’t mean it,” Fulton says, adding that having two older children gives her some perspective. “When kids this age are upset, they don’t know what else to do but lash out. But if I get mad, it makes the situation worse, so I just stay calm.”
Calgary parenting expert Gail Bell wholeheartedly agrees. She suggests you don’t immediately try to discuss the language, or react too strongly, if your child says something hurtful. “The mean stuff comes out because they’re frustrated at not knowing what to do with their feelings, and they want to make you feel bad, too,” she says. “Acknowledge the comment in the moment, but don’t get on the dance floor with your child.” Instead, Bell suggests you label her feelings (“I see you don’t like my decision”), and later in the day, once she has settled down, give examples of more appropriate words she could have used.
It can be hard to remain coolly detached when your child is lobbing harsh words your way, and if you can’t, give yourself a chance to calm down. Let your child know that you’re upset and need to be alone.
Of course, incessant insults aren’t OK either, and if the behaviour persists despite your efforts, you may want to introduce a consequence, such as losing a privilege. Bell suggests it could be something you’ve discussed ahead of time, so when the child starts acting out, he can be reminded of what is at risk.
“Or you can say something like, ‘Wow—poor choice of words; your behaviour is telling me that it’s not a good idea to have your playdate this afternoon,’” says Bell, adding that it’s important that you always follow through. If the behaviour becomes a pattern that you can’t stop, talk to your doctor, who may refer you to a behaviour specialist.
My son’s sixth birthday is just around the corner, and, thankfully, his harsh words are now few and far between. I’d like to claim this as a parenting triumph, but I see it was mostly a phase he outgrew. However, the other day, I was once again accused of being a mean mommy: It looks like his three-year-old brother is just discovering his sharp tongue.
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline “I hate you!”, p.76.