My client was mortified. She had just received a call from the teacher saying that her 8-year-old son called his good friend a “butt hole” while on the playground. Even though the teacher had only overheard the comment, the parent had to be told how inappropriate her son had been.
Days later a different client wrote to share that her 5-year-old son’s teacher called with similar news. When it was his turn to introduce himself to a new teacher, her son stated his name and added, “and I have a butt.”
Big problems? Not really. Inappropriate? Yes.
Then I read a quote from Louis CK, part of his admission of his (horrible) sexual misconduct. “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want.”
That was the ah ha moment for me. Between outrageous comments by over-pampered athletes, key Hollywood figures’ abusive displays of power through language and actions, and our President’s brash, unfiltered tweets, we are living in a world of the inappropriate.
The First Amendment of our country’s Bill of Rights guarantees our right to our freedom of speech. What it does not include is a right to be hurtful, mean, abusive, or inappropriate. While there are no laws about these, they are covered under the Golden Rule. And these are part of a courteous, respectful, and mannerly language that is used the world over.
We are living in much more candid and permissive times. Things that would never have been acceptable in my era (Ozzie and Harriet sleeping in the same bed; naming genitals on television; using put-downs as a form of public humor and cringe-worthy comedy; or using the word “bitch,”) have become ordinary today. The more you hear unseemly language and other methods of communication being used, the more acceptable you think it is.
The nature of social media—uncensored, with no oversight—has added to the regular practice of saying whatever you want. Our children’s early use of social media as well as TV and video viewing, reinforces that notion and that practice. No one is setting them straight.
I was raised in a time (and yes, I am a dinosaur) when we were taught If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. While that exact phrase may no longer hold totally true, the underlying message sure does. Children need to learn that their words and actions affect others. It is something they learn as they cultivate the empathy for which they are predisposed… but only if it is pointed out to them. It is a parent’s job to teach it. We simply cannot say whatever we want when it comes to mind, whether it is unkind or inappropriate. This is otherwise known as the need to “Hold your tongue,” another old-fashioned expression that is still necessary!
Here are a few tips to help you teach your child what to say and what not to say, when and where:
Model the language you want your child to use. As you well know, your child is watching and listening to you, always, and most especially when you think he is not. This includes when you are angry at your spouse, your mother, or another driver on the road! Use the vocabulary, expressions, and tone you want your child to use. Model discretion.
Explain your own communication choices. Beyond explaining your communication missteps, share with your child what you were feeling but chose not to say. Seeing that even you have to hold your tongue and/or find a nicer or more suitable way to say things is an important lesson. “I would really like to tell that lady that she is a road hog, but of course I won’t.” “I thought of something that is really funny, but I decided now isn’t the time and here isn’t the place to say it.”
Seize the example. Whether an example of thoughtful or poor communication, point it out to your child. He will learn and grow from seeing the lesson in real life action. I am reminded of the time South Carolina Representative Joseph Wilson called President Obama a liar, shouting out, “You lie!” in a session of Congress. There was a good example of something not only inappropriate, but also disrespectful.
Teach facial cues. Young children need to learn to read to people’s facial expressions and body language. Doing so gives them feedback as to how the recipient of his words or actions feel. It is a lesson in empathy and in effective communication.
Different strokes for different folks. We know that children save their worst behavior for their parents. This reality suggests they already know the difference between teacher and mom. At the same time, children need to learn the hierarchy among various people in their lives. The child above who introduced his “butt” to the new teacher, told his mother, “At least it wasn’t Mr. Blakely [the principal].” He knew!
Many a time I have suggested to a parent that she ask the child, “Would you say that to your teacher?” when the child has spoken rudely to her. Not only can that be followed with “Well, it’s not okay to say that to me either,” but you can underscore the lesson that a certain kind of respect comes with the positions people hold. (Curtseying to the Queen, for example.)
Forbidding talk is useless. There are also things that children say to one another that grown-ups do not want to hear. Bathroom talk is the perfect example. But in this case, it is more effective to let him know when he can say those words. “You may use those words when you are in the bathroom when no grown-ups are around to hear them.”
Teach that we use different words in different environments. Learning what you can say where is a hard lesson to teach and to learn. In this case, experience is the best teacher, especially since the line that is crossed is not straight. Even though the child who called his friend a “butt hole” was with another child and did not know teacher was listening, it happened at school. The teacher’s message to the parent was that it isn’t okay to use that language at school at all.
Teach that words are reflective. While it may seem obvious, the child needs to learn that the words he says, the expressions he uses say something about him to other people. Sometimes it says the child knows what is okay and not okay to say. And sometimes it shows that the child does not know the difference. Maybe it says that the child’s parents haven’t taught him that lesson. Maybe it makes other people uncomfortable to be with him. But a child’s choice of words and expressions never falls on deaf ears.
Children can know better. We know that young children, in particular, can be parrots. We also know that children enjoy trying out words, expressions, and tones they have heard or seen. It is a good idea to remind the child that he knows what is and isn’t okay to say. Let the child know that you have faith that he will make the right choices about what he says, even when someone else might not.
Help the child to find the words he needs. Children need practice in finding just the right words to express their feelings appropriately. It isn’t the feeling that has to change, it is the expression thereof. The parent can help the child find the way to say what he feels without having to be inappropriate or mean spirited in his communication.
These lessons are ones which take a lifetime to learn. (Clearly, many adults missed this and other lessons, based on recent headline news about sexual harassment.) Your child’s lifetime is now. It’s time to tune in.