Kinda Cute, Kinda Not
“You gotta be kiddin’ me!” my daughter June yelled at her soft pretzel. From within the shopping cart she said it again, this time louder, “You gotta be KIDDIN’ ME!!” OK, what is this? I thought. The other shoppers in the shoe isle just chuckled. There’s no getting around it; kids repeating grown up words and phrases is just cute. Even when bizarrely yelling at a pretzel in the middle of Target, kids can elicit smiles and warm fuzzies. Though I am still not sure about what the pretzel was attempting to kid her about.
Most of the time, little ones repeating what they hear is funny and charming. Even when a friend who had lately been displaying some “pregnancy language” (as she calls it) heard her three-year-old yell out “da—-t!” after missing the hole in the middle of a busy miniature golf course, everyone got a bit of a laugh.
But, as these tiny, uncensored parrots zip around playgroup, daycare, errands, and the kitchen table, they may start to pick up words and phrases that are demeaning, racist, sexist, or even downright cruel. I grew up pretty sheltered, but I cringe when I think about some of the name-calling and cruelty that went on at school, especially towards those who were in special education classes or perceived as different from our mostly homogenous peers. If I ever heard those words come out of my daughter’s mouth, the cute would fade away, real quick.
First, I try to remember that it’s totally normal and healthy for kids to repeat what they hear. That is how they learn, explore boundaries, test for your reaction, and grow their vocabulary. Plus, it’s reassuring to hear evidence that new words and phrases are sticking as kids put them into real-life practice. Those aspects, however, are likely nowhere near the front of your brain the moment something truly nasty or derogatory escapes their tongue. Start by telling yourself, this isn’t personal — or even self-aware, for that matter.
Second, when they do pop up, these moments come fully loaded with built-in learning opportunities — for you as well. For a few minutes, kids are trained on your reaction. They want to know what you think! Make sure they know in no uncertain terms, that those words or “names” are NOT okay. Depending on their age, you can explain that they are not nice, and they are said in a moment of anger or even to hurt people. Reiterate that you understand their naiveté in the matter and that you love them.
Third, give them a replacement word, phrase or idea. Build on the scaffolding that this moment has provided; help them find something good about the person (if it was personal), or another positive name or word they can practice saying. If you provide them a pool to draw from, they will have a much easier time pulling out a good, constructive and uplifting word on a moment’s notice. I have personally seen this strategy lead to better peer and authority interactions, higher self-esteem and a propensity for leadership in kids.
At the end of the day, kids are sensitive, good-hearted beings. They learn quickly and effectively through imitation, especially when it comes to language and vocabulary. This can make for some mortifying, embarrassing and nail-biting moments, but it can also make for some deep introspection and learning for everyone involved. Our impulses to guide, love and protect them are in place for a reason.
Words are powerful little seeds that germinate and grow to affect the future in ways we are just starting to fully appreciate. What kids say or repeat can be jarring, but there is always a way to jump on the opportunity and put words to work for their future.