Kids’ Bad Words Can Give Parents Good Insights

Stupid is as stupid says

My first-grade daughter has been expanding her vocabulary with bad words. This development began over the summer while she was riding the camp bus with a bunch of older boys. Here’s a list of some of her new favorites:

  • Idiot
  • Dummy (or Dumb)
  • Jerk
  • Poopy
  • Penis
  • Butt

I realize these words could and probably will be a lot worse in the not so distant future, but she’s been making the most of her new knowledge. For example, she’s learned to combine these words to come up with colorful gems like “Idiot Butt” and “Poopy Penis.”

While this newfound language has been somewhat frustrating to deal with, it has also, more importantly, given me some insight into how my daughter thinks and feels about herself.

Hands down, my daughter’s favorite new word is “stupid.” “Stupid” is often aimed at her younger brother, and its use is usually driven by jealousy. She has said, with prodding from me, that she doesn’t like the attention he gets for “being cute” and she doesn’t like “having to share” with him. Despite her frustration being more about his cuteness and about having to share, she chooses to direct her negativity at his mental abilities (e.g. his supposed stupidity) rather than anything physical.

What I’ve come to realize is that there is significance in why “stupid” is her favorite jab.  In fact, a bunch of her favorites have to do with how smart or not smart someone is. By paying attention to the negative words she frequently uses, I’ve been able to gain some insight into the things that she doesn’t like about herself.

Pop psych 101 says that if you’re bothered continually by something that other people are doing, it is probably something that you don’t like about yourself, but can’t face. The person who doesn’t like when other people talk too much is often an over talker. The guy who doesn’t like how serious other parents take their children’s sports is the first one to yell at the ref for a botched call in pee wee soccer. The same theory goes for the words we direct at others in anger or frustration. From this perspective, my daughter’s use of “stupid” is actually a reflection of how she feels about herself, which she confirmed when she admitted that she often feels “stupid at school.” (And I should note that this use of slights and bad words to vent underlying feelings about oneself isn’t specific to six-year olds and happens with children and adults of all ages.)

If you’re not good you’re bad

Sometimes my daughter isn’t the most flexible person. She struggles with letting things go, and has difficulty moving away mentally from perceived wrongs or losses. Much of these troubles stem from her propensity to think about things in very black and white terms. While this thinking isn’t unusual for kids her age, it greatly contributes to how she thinks about herself.

School is important to most kids. It’s a way they can measure themselves against their peers on a daily basis. My daughter, like many kids, invests a lot of energy in doing well at school. I would estimate that like most students, she is probably average in most areas, below average in a few, and a little above average in some. This, however, doesn’t work well with her current all-or-none thinking.

Black and white, all-or-none thinking often makes for critical self analysis when a person is average in most of their abilities – as most of us are. Even above-average skills in certain areas are often turned into negative self feelings because black and white thinking only allows for one person to be “the best”: anything but the best is translated into the worst. So in my daughter’s case, although she is a mostly successful, hard working, well-behaved student, she often thinks of herself as “stupid.”

Knowing is half the battle: next steps to take

OK, so now that I know that my daughter often thinks of herself as “stupid,” what do I do about it?

Tell it like it is: Pointing out negative words, and the underlying meaning behind their use, can be helpful in getting kids to acknowledge the things they don’t like about themselves. This will help them begin facing difficult feelings rather than avoiding them. “I think you’re calling your brother stupid because you’re feeling jealous and you want him to feel stupid like you feel sometimes.” “When people say mean things about other people they really feel that way about themselves.” “You’re brother is not stupid and neither are you.”

Sell the middle: Many of my posts focus on how well or poorly kids are able to cope with loss. In this case, too, my daughter’s black and white thinking is actually a defense against feeling loss. She spends time building herself up as “Best” because she can’t tolerate thinking about herself as “Worst.” The problem is that she often isn’t “Best” (just like the rest of us mere mortals). Focusing on this fact through stories of our own childhood or through books, TV or movies, parents can help create a little space for kids to begin to accept the reality of being average.

Pursue Passions: This is sort of a no brainer in that most parents are looking hard for that one thing that our children love and potentially excel at. But having children find their passion is especially important if you’re actually listening to me and telling them how average they are!

Most activities these days are highly structured and packaged. Think soccer, art class, or gymnastics and the formulaic way our children progress through classes. It’s not that these activities aren’t a path to interests and hobbies.  Sometimes they are (albeit more rarely than we’d think). But it’s often more important to be on the lookout for how kids choose to spend their free time. What are they drawn to?  What are the topics they ask questions about?

Also, it’s easy to dismiss video games, TV shows or internet use as brainless, filler activities, but they can provide some good information on burgeoning interests.  Video games like Minecraft or Terraria are steeped in architecture and design. Other games like Dota, Smash Brothers and even first person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo are high on competition, strategy and teamwork. Finding out why kids are drawn to the shows they watch or the games they play can help parents identify aptitudes or passions that are a bit more hidden than more traditional pursuits like art or sports. Asking about these pursuits also encourages kids to share more of what they like with parents rather than hiding them for fear of disapproval.

Role play the stupid loser: Playing games with our kids can help them to learn to tolerate loss in a safe setting. When I lose I dramatically express the pains of losing with crying, flailing, and a few “I’m so stupids.” My daughter cracks up! She loves the reversal and gets to see the pain of losing played out rather than bottled up. She is then learning to play with the idea of loss, rather than trying to avoid it or being painfully overwhelmed by it every time she thinks about losing.