Friday, May 22, 2015

Name Calling

Have you ever seen one of those prepubescent beauty pageant girls? You know, the ones whose moms dress them up like adult women, bouffant their hair, and give them make-up to make it look like they have 18-year-old heads on 5-year-old bodies? We're appalled. It's both grotesque and sad. We pity the little girl and scorn the mother, blaming her for sexualizing her innocent child.

We don't, of course, accuse the girl herself of being "sexy." We all know that she's been taught to go through some motions that are otherwise meaningless to her. A girl that age is incapable of being sexy, but she is capable of imitating a set of behaviors she's been taught are aspects of being female, at least within her sub-culture.

Young children do a lot of things without an inkling of the adult connotations of their behaviors. When my daughter was a 4-year-old preschooler she was part of a gang of 4-5 girls who spent their days playing together, sometimes to the exclusion of other girls, fairly typical age-appropriate behavior. At about this time a couple of the moms from our school were reading a book entitled Reviving Ophelia, a fantastic, insightful book by all accounts about the toxicity of our media culture to adolescent girls, an aspect of which was the whole "mean girls" phenomenon. These moms decided that my daughter, my 4-year-old daughter, was a "mean girl," discussed it among the other parents and even went so far as to take their concerns to the teacher, all of this without speaking with me. This is likely a good thing for them because I'd have shown them what mean is really all about.

Reasonable people know that words like sexy or mean are not appropriate words to use to describe children. Frankly, it's the worst kind of vicious, back-biting name-calling. So why do so many feel it's okay to describe young boys as aggressive? A 2-year-old boy who hits a friend knows no more about what he is doing than those sad little beauty queens. A 4-year-old who experiments with his power by shouting fiercely at a playmate is no more an "aggressive boy" than my daughter was a "mean girl" simply because she experimented with the powerful feelings that come from excluding others. The same goes for the word violent. A young boy may engage in behavior that adults perceive as violent or aggressive, but he no more knows what he is doing than the little girls who parade across stages in bikinis. At some level, they have been taught that these behaviors are aspects of being a male in our culture. You personally may reject these behaviors (in fact, most of us do), just as you may reject the ritualized sexual behavior of adult beauty queens, but believe me, the kids are just trying things out and they have no idea, or a very twisted idea, of what it means.

Labeling young boys as aggressive or violent is in itself a kind of aggressive, perhaps even violent, behavior. Try this mental experiment: what do you think it would do to a little girl's future if she was repeatedly labeled sexy? Only a cruel or perverted adult would do that. Yet this is what happens to our little boys with the words aggressive and violent. Words matter.

Our job as important adults in children's lives is to teach them what their behaviors mean, not to label them. And we don't do that by treating them as we would aggressive, violent adults, but rather by engaging in rational conversation, by honestly discussing our own opinions and values, by helping them come to an understanding of how their behaviors might be perceived by others, by pointing out the difference between cartoons and real life. You know, just as we would with our girls when they experiment with sex appeal or exclusion.

Please stop using the words aggressive and violent to describe young children. You are wrong and you are doing damage. And please point it out when others do it. They are wrong and they are doing damage.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

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Jennifer Fink said...

What a wonderful post! I'll be sharing it on BuildingBoys.

Pixie said...

Thank you so very much for this. Taking a moment to look at what is happening around any child testing their power is so much more valuable than plastering a label all over them based on adult values. Getting along with people is a journey of learning, one many adults haven't refined all that well themselves.


A mom of a 6 month old shared this story with me recently: "When I picked my son up from childcare they informed me that he was being a bully and stealing toys from the other children." REALLY???? I told her his behavior should be celebrated!! He is active and exhibiting self-motivation…crawling to get what he wants, reaching up and grasping what he finds interesting. He is social…wanting to touch and engage with the other infants. There is something very askew with caregivers who do not know enough about child development to be able to identify and celebrate the natural progress of infants. And there is a responsibility they have in intervening and assisting infants as they move about and interact.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I am not sure I fully agree.

You have a point, labeling is bad. But I don't see why you should treat adults differently.

It's not right to label adults either and condemn them.

And the same way, kids might try things out, and play, but it's also important to not just say "but they are just kids".

Their behavior hurts other kids and adults, who may equally be damaged by that.

So yes, not blame or label them, but gently tell them and educate them that it is not nice behavior.

There needs to be a balance. And kids need to respect others, too.

It's good to play and take time, but it's not right to let things just go.

So it's a balance.

Teacher Tom said...

@anonymous . . . I'm not saying that we let kids off the hook with a "but they are just kids." I am saying that our method is to address the behavior without labeling the child. We've found that in almost every case, when adults simply point out the natural consequences of behavior in a calm, informative manner, children are able to make better choices going forward.

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