Sticks and Stones: Four causes for name-calling and four critical interventions
In this article, I encourage you to think differently. What if I told you it is completely impossible to stop name-calling? What if I said there are specific purposes and underlying causes for name-calling, and that we must understand each of them in order to teach new skills? Sound revolutionary? Good, because we need a change in paradigm if we are to tackle the increasing frequency and severity of name-calling and bullying.
Using this frame of thinking along with volumes of developmental and brain research, I see four types of name-calling, and four ways to effectively transform them into higher-level social and emotional skills. The four causes behind name-calling are adult modeling, inability to manage emotions, bonding, and aggression.
Cause: There is absolutely no doubt, based on both research and common sense, that children learn name-calling from us. This happens mainly through our direct interactions with children and/or the interactions children observe between us and other adults.
Our direct interactions include explicitly and implicitly name-calling our own children. We sometimes label them with statements like “You’re being mean,” “Don’t be rude,” or “Your laziness has to stop!” We sometimes imply name-calling with statements like “You should know better,” “What should you be doing?” or “Where should you be?” Such language implies the child is stupid for not knowing the appropriate behavior.
Our interactions with others greatly color children’s perceptions as well. We often feel frustration, anger, and disappointment when the world is not going our way. Imagine driving to the store with three children, all buckled in and physically safe. As you are waiting for a parking space, another car slips in just before you. You begin to rant, “You selfish, inconsiderate @#$!” In that moment, you have taught the children in the car that when the world doesn’t go their way, the guilty party deserves to be put-down, name-called, and devalued. Later in the store, all three children ask for candy. You reply, “No.” From their point of view, you have just taken their parking spot. The world is not going their way, and you are the guilty party. The children call you names, which you label “disrespectful back talk.” A power struggle ensues.
Solution: The first step in our no-name calling campaign is to learn another way of handling our own frustrations and disappointments. (This is why I named my signature program “Conscious Discipline.” We, as adults, must first become conscious of the ways we sabotage our efforts to guide children’s development.) We must begin with transforming our own behavior before we can hope to change our children’s behavior. The first step in this process is starting a “Be a S.T.A.R.” program. When the world does not go your way, talk out loud for your children, using the following processes:
- Be a S.T.A.R.: Smile, Take a deep breath, And Relax. Three deep breaths help to shut down the stress response in the body. Breathe deeply to take a moment to be conscious of your reaction.
- Then state something like, “Wow, I was hoping that would go differently. I’m going to take a moment to breathe, wish the other person well, and solve this problem.” In the parking spot example, you might say, “Bummer! That was frustrating! I wanted that spot so we wouldn’t have to walk so far. Okay kids, looks like some exercise for all of us!”
Inability to manage emotions
Cause: Sometimes, due to developmental age, past modeling, basic temperament, or other reasons, children may resort to using hurtful language and name-calling as a way to express themselves. We can choose to see these children as “being mean,” or we can choose to see them as lacking the self-control and skills necessary to express themselves appropriately. After we change our own reactions by using the modeling solutions above, it is much easier to help children successfully change theirs.
Solution: The following formula will get you started in a new direction. To help children manage strong emotions, it is essential to assist them in recognizing their feelings and their desired outcome, to offer empathy, and to teach a new skill. The words to use are:
“You seem ________(feeling word).”
“You wanted ______ (state desire).” or “You were hoping ____(state desire).”
“It’s hard when that happens. You can handle it. Breathe with me.”
Then help the child solve the problem by teaching an appropriate skill or problem solving, as appropriate.
For example, your son wants his friend, Avery, to visit for a sleepover. Avery asks his mom, who says it’s not a good time. When Avery relays this message, your son says, “She’s is a witch! An ugly old witch!” Take a deep breath and consciously approach your child, saying, “You seem frustrated. You really wanted Avery to stay over tonight. It’s hard when your friend can’t stay over. Breathe with me. You can handle this. Once you’re calm, maybe you could ask if Avery could stay over next weekend.”
When you repeat this new language pattern again and again, your child will ultimately learn to express his disappointment in a different, healthier way. Eventually, you’ll hear, “Man I feel so mad! I was hoping Avery could come over tonight. Bummer. Do you think we could ask him for next weekend?”
Cause: We usually think of name-calling as strictly hurtful, but sometimes it can be a bonding tool used to build camaraderie and belonging. Children may label themselves jocks or geeks, much like politicians label themselves republican or democratic. These labels create instant belonging for their members. Often this labeling is also turned outward, and the name-calling labels “them” negatively and “us” positively. This type of name-calling can be extremely hurtful, and is very prevalent in middle and high school as children jostle for status and belonging. It is also seen more with girls than with boys, as girls tend to use relational aggression. When bonding and belonging is the goal behind name-calling, we can significantly reduce it by changing the culture of our schools, homes, and institutions.
Solution: We cannot change the climate of our schools, homes, and institutions unless we work on the strategies mentioned above first (adult modeling and helping children learn to regulate their emotions). In my new book, Creating the School Family: Bully-proofing through emotional intelligence (due in March 2011), I address the issue of school and classroom climate extensively.
To begin the shift to an all-inclusive classroom, school, or home, we must address how we discipline and guide our children. If discipline is about external rewards and punishments, we will always create a system based on the categories of “good” and “bad,” that is based on the judgments of others. Once we split the world into these two camps, we also create two value systems. Good children deserve to be treated one way, and bad children deserve to be treated another. When we shift our discipline system away from rewards, punishments, good guys and bad guys, to one based on safety, connection, and problem solving, we will help children develop the internal motivation to cooperate. Bullying and name-calling will effectively disappear in favor of this inclusive, cooperative climate.
Cause: The last function name-calling serves is to intentionally hurt another. In this case, name-calling takes the place of the higher-level skill of conflict resolution. Of the four name-calling causes, sadly, this is the only one given significant attention. I say “sadly” because unless we address issues one through three above, we cannot be effective in transforming aggressive name-calling into effective problem solving.
Solution: Why are some children able to let name-calling roll off their backs while others take it to heart with deep pain? At the core, if the name-calling seems bizarre or ridiculous, we can laugh if off and see the aggressor as just trying to get attention. If, on the other hand, we believe the label could be true about ourselves, we feel hurt. This is vital for parents to understand. If children are deeply hurt by a particular label, then they believe they are less worthy than others in some way. From this understanding, we can work to reassure the hurting children, be more conscious of how we talk to them, and provide opportunities for them to heal their own negative labeling of themselves.
The first step in transforming aggressive name-calling is to change our perception. We often see the victim and the aggressor in two different lights. The victim is the innocent one and the aggressor is a bully. I strongly encourage you to let go of both of these labels, and start seeing the name-calling as a call for help from both parties. The “victim” is calling for help in the sense that he does not know how to handle such aggression and needs to learn to be assertive and stand up for himself. The “aggressor” is calling for help in the sense that she does not know a better way to resolve conflict. Both children are missing essential social skills needed for the rest of their lives.
To help both children learn from the interaction and change it from a hurtful exchange into a helpful communication, do the following:
- Speak to the victim first: Often, we are quick to seek out the “guilty” party for punishment. By going to the victim first, you are stating that you, your family and/or your classroom value healing over hurting.
- State what happened and ask the victim, “Did you like it?” Adult: “Madison, Marcos just called you a name. Did you like it?”
- Listen carefully to the victim’s response. Does she respond with an assertive “no,” a passive whimper or an aggressive yell? To empower the victim, we must teach the child to use an assertive voice. Passive and aggressive tones will both invite more aggression. Assertiveness will dissipate it.
- Give the victim the exact words and tone to express herself. Adult: “Madison, tell Marcos, ‘I don’t like it when you call me names.’”
- Then, coach the child to tell the aggressor how she wants to be treated. Adult: “What would you like Marcos to call you?” Child: “By my name.” Adult: “Then, tell Marcos, ‘Please call me Madison, that is my name.’”
After teaching this new skill to the victim, you can turn to the aggressor and say, “Marcos, you wanted to let Madison know something is bothering you.” Then facilitate the resolution of the underlying problem between the two.
Name-calling is a systemic issue in our society. Whether a child’s name-calling stems from adult modeling, an inability to manage emotions, efforts to bond, aggression or a combination of these factors, adults can take real and tangible steps to teach children a better way to express themselves. My hope is that we will move past our attempts at quick fixes and consciously do the work required to transform name-calling into healthy, social-emotional skills. As with any major change, the change begins within us and extends outward to those in our care.