You’re having a normal day, out with your kids in the very place you would least like to be judged for your parenting. Suddenly a store employee drops something and your child exclaims far more loudly than anyone wants to hear, “Look what they did! That person is so stupid!”
Uh oh… You had hoped your uncle’s name-calling would go straight over their heads when he visited the other day. It appears that was not the case… Perhaps you feel embarrassed, terrified even of what people might be thinking of you and your child. You might want to scold your child or explain to all the strangers about how he really is a good kid and that he didn’t pick that up from you! Or this could be your cue to scoop up your family and run away, leaving a cart full of groceries behind as you make a beeline for the exit.
Whatever your reaction, it makes sense! We certainly don’t want our kids to randomly be calling people stupid. Or generally saying something rude, unkind, or judgmental. You might even have a whole mental list of other words or behaviors you’d rather not see your kids acting out. Especially in public! And we can try to avoid exposing them to people, movies, or anything else that might include something we don’t like, but ultimately that sheltering can only go so far.
We can’t keep our kids from hearing everything we don’t want them to repeat, but we can teach them how to process it when they do.
Kids act things out, in everyday life and in play, as a way of making sense of what they experience. So when they hear a new word or witness a new behavior, they will repeat that as a way of trying to figure out what it means and where it fits in their growing construct of life. You might see this in the way they play with their toys or how they talk to their friends or to you.
This means that when they hear someone call another person stupid, for example, they may begin using this word as they play, or practice calling people stupid themselves. They want to know what kind of reaction it will illicit. They want to know what it means. They want to know how it fits into their understanding of how the world works and what their place in all of it is.
So in this case, since we already know where the child heard what he is repeating, we can help him answer those questions by putting it in context. One way to do that is to have a conversation like this, “Hey, so the other day when we were with my Uncle Bill, I heard him talking about his friend and he said, ‘he’s so stupid.’ When I heard that I felt kind of sad and upset because I want to hear all people treated kindly, and I don’t think stupid is a very kind word to call a person.”
In this, you are describing what both you and your child heard and how you felt about it. This helps him to make sense of the situation and develop his own understanding of what this new word means. Instead of it just being labeled as “bad” or something he definitely shouldn’t say if he wants to not get in trouble, he can begin to learn what it means and why he may not want to use it.
You can also give alternatives in order to create an even deeper understanding, and give your child more tools he can apply to his own interactions in the future. “It sounded like Uncle Bill thought his friend made a mistake. If MY friend made a mistake, I would say this instead…” or “If I made a mistake, I would want to hear…” or “When you make a mistake, I want you to know…” Or you could give an age appropriate example of what you WOULD like to hear repeated in a similar situation, “When I heard that my friend forgot about doing what he said he would do, I felt really frustrated.”
If your child is repeating something and you don’t know where he heard or saw it, ask him! As he’s trying to gauge where this new thing fits, it’s important to make sure he doesn’t feel like he’s being accused of something. For a child who is more sensitive to that, you might say, “Hey buddy, I heard you say this word and I haven’t heard you say it before. It’s really cool to find new words, isn’t it? Can I help you figure out what it means?” This can open up the door for you to explore and learn together!
It can be easy to freak out a bit internally when our kids say or do things we really would rather them not. If we can take a pause on our own reaction however, and instead really help our kids to make sense of the world around them, the repeating will often stop on its own. They’ve now found a place to mentally file this new information. And as they develop their own moral compass, it will be valuable information to have!