Friday, August 19, 2011

Aggressive And Violent

Have you ever seen one of those prepubescent beauty queens? 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 sexual. 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 sexual, 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 sexual 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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Michaele Sommerville said...

Brilliant and rightly said.

Kierna C said...

Once again you have hit the nail on the head. Hats off to you again

htshaw said...

Brilliantly articulated. Thank you!

Saya said...

I love reading your blog, Teacher Tom, because you are such an adequate writer and articulate things that I cant, soooooo well! Always nodding my head and saying "yes, That's what I'm sayin', thank you, Teacher Tom!" so many times while I read. LOL!
Thank you!

kirstie said...

I think another problem with 'aggressive and violent' is that it is short hand for 'when a boy carries out age appropriate behaviour like running/bumping into people/experimenting with throwing or kicking at a time that is inconvenient to an adult'.

Unfortunately, for many boys, this kind of behaviour is inconvenient 24 hours a day.

Melanie said...

Thank you so much for this food for thought!
Melanie (mother to two boys)

Christine Natale said...

I get a bit tired of things being so either/ or these days in many arenas. We are all so fond of labels. As a former preschool/ kindergarten teacher, I feel that there is a lot of transformation to be done in these early years. I personally believe in reincarnation and I do not think that a child is a "blank slate" subject only to heredity and environment. That's a big subject for another discussion, but it plays into the idea of using stories, especially "healing stories" and real "fairy tales" to help the young individual find their way through the maze of their budding emotions.

Agressiveness and exclusion I have found in both boys and girls, as well as a "sexual" interest in both boys and girls around age 5. It's not so much being "sexy" but it is an interest in figuring out what being a boy or girl means and how to identify themselves. Of course we get the nurturing little boys and the "tomboy" little girls. They are not the problem. The problem, as Teacher Tom says, is the adults around them labeling them and locking them into behaviors and attitudes.

Stories, drama and intuitively directed creative play all give each child the chance to imagine him or her self in many different ways and in many different kinds of relationships. Of course, both psychologically and spiritually, this happens at a deep and mostly subconscious level, although one can witness expressions of these processes daily.

Here is a story for the "boys" (although it is just as effective for the girls):

The Strong Boy

and a story for the "girls" (although transformational for boys, too) :

The Three Vain Princesses

Helena D. Bianchi said...

What a great article. I was so labeled when I was growing up. My parents also put a lot of focus on my outward appearance. I have worked through those issues, but I have promised myself NEVER to label my kids. Thank you for spreading the word. Will share this on twitter and facebook. Thank you again!

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi five you and the others who've posted a comment. I've just come back from a day's teaching Grade 1 & 2 children with additional needs. One child like to hold a stick and jab it a few times. I didn't read this as an act of aggression because quite clearly none was intended. He just liked holding and using the stick. That's all. There were other behaviours too which were completely developmental normal but culturally considered squew whiff. Sigh!

Unknown said...

Yay! Thank you for standing up for the boys! Having both a boy & a girl I look for ways to help each of them grow & mature into happy/healthy people. It often feels as if there is so much out there supporting those of us raising girls, but there is SO little to help show us the way in raising our boys.

I absolutely agree with your points about how these labels should be avoided. Even if one has aggressive moments, it's the act that's perhaps aggressive - not the child.

Aunt Annie said...

Great post, Tom. It inspired me to give an example of how to deal with kids who have been labelled like this in my latest blog post-
Labels are so often used as a convenient shorthand when talking about a child's behaviour, but we do have to be careful of where that shorthand leads. One's mental picture of a child can be skewed by listening only to the label instead of seeing the whole child.

jenny @ let the children play said...

So timely Tom. We have a group of boys who have been playing "police stations" for the past 2 terms. Their play is constructive, imaginative, creative and involves all kinds of social learning. Some of it involves behaviours that adults label as aggressive or violent (words mostly, but also gun and sword play) and they have also become such a functioning little unit that they aren't interested in letting other kids into their play. Parents have noticed this and there are grumblings and rumblings afoot with words like "aggressive" being bandied about. When we place adult words and perceptions onto a child's play we are turning it into something else altogether. I think one of our big roles is also educating parents.

Annette said...

Thank you so much for your perspective!
I have a 3 year old son who was referred to as "aggressive" since he was 2 by other mothers that I would meet, some of which considered themselves peaceful parents. My instinct was that that word just couldn't apply to a young child! It seems to imply some mal-intent that is just not possible at that age. My son is just more physical in general, for better or worse so we have to pay very close attention to his friends and what he sees and hears, but he is just as likely to HUG you and tell you an animated story as he is to try to push you or whack your leg because he is still learning how to express himself and he defaults physically. Language is SO important, and while I occasionally forget this myself in frustrated moments, more people need to keep child development in perspective when they judge behavior.

Kristin@SenseofWonder said...

I know this really isn't what your article is about, I wanted to say that all of us are sexual. I have three children, two girls and a boy. I always attempted to raise them in a gender neutral way. While I have never sought to sexualize my children in any way, my oldest has always had a streak of...well...awareness of herself as a sexual being. She flirts, and preens and prances whenever a boy is around and has her whole life (even when she was two years old)
While this behavior used to send me spiraling in to worry I have come to see this as normal behavior of a sexual being.
Again, I know that this isn't what your post was about but I just wanted to share my view on this. As for my son, it is so comforting to hear support for his right to be a boy. Thank you.

redmamadeb said...

Labeling anyone can be a dangerous thing. It's very hard not to do it because as humans we naturally categorize. The problem is that children can absorb labels and come to think that they are absolutely what they are being labeled. Also, people treating them a certain way can be a kind of viscious negative fulfilling cycle. I try very hard not to label my son because i realized very early on, what he was like as a baby wasn't a reflection of his personality as a toddler. He was shy and clingy as a baby and now he's almost the complete opposite - outgoing and friendly. Wonder how he would have turned out if we had kept reinforcing the idea that he is shy?

i still fight the urge to label him; i try to keep my opinions to myself or share them with my husband. You've given me something to consider as i interact with parents and make observations of the children in my first class this year.

Susan said...

I had the very same thing happen to me in my classroom this year. I had a parent label a 4 year old year old girl as "the mean girl" The parent then told a few friends and it was brought to my attention by a few parents in the class. They never went to the child's parent. The moms would come in and actually watch the girl and make faces. It was ridiculous! They seemed to be waiting for the opportunity to say something to the child. When the parents noticed that I was watching them, they would stop and then leave the classroom.
I spoke to/had discussions with all of the children involved, individually and as a group. I also talked to each parent on the dangers of labeling a child. I have been teaching for more than 20 years and this was the worst year of parents in my class. At arrival each day, I had to have one of my assistants sit or work with this child to "protect" her from some of these mothers. I did everything in my power to protect this child. I also could see this child was on a very different maturity level. I reminder the children to speak with me when they any concerns. When i asked the other children about how they felt or if they had any concerns, they would dismiss it almost immediately. One of the girls was prompted and would speak in adult created sentence. I spoke to the mom in depth about one of the parents. She insisted that her child was upset about this girl and did not want to come to school, cry at night, etc, etc... This child would bounce into school each day, run over to greet her friends and forget to say goodbye to her mother. I would spend a great deal of time watching and observing her interaction with the "girl" and her peers. It was very difficult to find anything that would cause this girl any sort of anger, sadness, or worry. She had great skills in dealing with the leader or a more mature girl.
Do we now have preschool mothers that will "bully" children? I have seen it on my son's baseball field with a group of 10 year olds. I feel I am a "seasoned" preschool teacher, this year was very challenging and a bit disturbing.

heather said...

very well said :) by no means do i understand your view as condoning aggressive or violent behaviors (which i assume you're not doing), but rather labeling those behaviors and the children that engage in them. for they are just exploring what their bodies are capable of, and the only way to understand that sometimes is through trial and error. and, even, tears at times.

i often feel like the crazy mom who lets her child experiment with his actions, his feelings, his independence (as well as dependence). but with that, i see how much trust we've developed, both between each other, and he with himself. and it's not because i "let" him grab a toy from another kiddo, but instead, because he has the time to not only grab the toy, but then to see how that makes another child feel and react, as well as how it makes himself feel. instead of me jumping in and explaining the whole situation.

thanks for shedding some light on the subject :) very much appreciated!

Suzanne said...

I went to bed thinking about this post. I understand what you are saying and why you are saying it. I was wondering why exactly "aggressive" is a bad label. It would be a good label for a stain remover, or a football player or even a lawyer. So maybe the problem is more in our heads? Kids can be aggressive and it's okay as long as the aggression is channelled appropriately. Maybe rather than eliminating the label we could accept the word and the child's character and encourage appropriate expressions of aggression?

Shauna Kay said...

Just discovered your blog and I love what you have to say.
I think the word "bully" is used to describe aggressive behaviour in very young children too and it does my head in! Maybe it's easier to label and blame rather than love and gently model kindness?
Thanks for your insightful words!

Rachel said...

How about describing all chldren's behavior, instead of judging it?

Look at what the child is doing, and describe that instead. Then " he's always hitting" becomes "he seems to get more physical when there's a lot of action going on."

She's "hyperactive" becomes "she gets fidgety when we have circle time and asks to go to the bathroom."

Judging a child's behavior is wrong not only because of the how it affects how children view themselves, but it also affects our ability to problem solve difficult behaviors.

Briana said...

This is perfect! And exactly what many need to be reminded of when we put our adult words on children, especially young children.

I must also say that is always inspiring to read a great blog post, and then see 20 comments from the same number of people who are adding great insights and comments. It makes me feel so happy to be in a great community of adults who affect the lives of children. And it's encouraging that there are so many of us out there working our magic on the world.

tirzahdawn said...

I have that child that is labeled at 3. He was put into a class of almost 4 year olds when he was 2 turning 3. He was the youngest and did not have verbal skills to hang with the big boys. He is tall. So all parents assumed he was thier child's age. We have struggled with this label for 2 years. I know that he will get it. I know that he will understand what it means to be kind and gentle but that it takes time to learn these skills. But, the label sticks. You post so touched my heart. I don't see my kids as a bad kid. I see my kid as that kid that takes many reminders to learn how to treat others. He reminds me of a saint Benard. He tramples you without realizing what he is doing. When you call him on it, he is remorsful and sensitive to the fact that he has just run you over. Thank you for your post!