14 November 2010

"You're a [fill in the blank]-head!"

It's the dawn of a new and unpleasant (if you're me) or hilarious (if you're Maddie and Riley) era: that of the "You're a [fill in the blank]-head" taunts.

I place the blame for this squarely on a new habit of Maddie and Riley's that I find otherwise utterly endearing. They have fallen in love with audiobooks. They are bonkers for them. They beg me to put them on in the car and at home. It makes our car rides bilssfully conflict-free and gives us all some down time at home. Overall, audiobooks get a definite two thumbs up.


One of the books we got on CD most recently at the library is the first in the Ivy and Bean series. In it, Bean calls her older sister Nancy a boogerhead. Maddie and Riley both latched right on to that, and since then, they have called each other various silly things like spoonhead and lamphead and bookhead and applehead, and other less funny things like stupidhead and butthead and, of course, boogerhead.


As a language professional, and as a person who finds language to be a great release for all kinds of emotions, both positive and negative, I am loathe to have "forbidden words." I don't want to fetishize language and I also don't want to end up encouraging Maddie and Riley to say "bad" words anytime I'm not around. At the same time, it's clearly not OK for my four-year-olds to say fuck or shit or damn or even stupidhead. In terms of how I set limits around the house, we're pretty much a safe, respectful, and kind house, so I have some pretty broad latitude there. Certainly calling people stupidheads is not kind or respectful, and I've asked M&R to stop using such words under those auspices.

I have two problems, though. One is that the distinction between calling someone a carrothead and calling someone an uglyhead is pretty fine for Maddie and Riley. Also, they don't say any of this in an insulting sense, exactly. It usually starts with a listing of any old object they see laying around ("You glue stick head! You rulerhead!") and degenerates into the more insulting stuff. I'm not sure how clearly the understand the line between silly and unkind.

I'm also not sure where to set the limit. Is carrothead OK, but stupidhead is not? What about diaperhead? I mean, yuck, but . . . It seems to me that the problem is more of motivation rather than of language. Are they slinging words to hurt, or just to play with language, explore words, and get a kick out of the fact that it just never gets old to say butt? Can four year olds understand the nuance of the motivation? How can I assess their motivation and punish accordingly? What's an appropriate punishment for calling your friend a butthead?

How do the rest of you handle these kinds of language-testing, limit-testing, word-based behavior problems? I need some ideas, 'cos here's what's just not cutting it: "Sweetie, it's unkind to call your friend a stupidhead. If you do that again, I'm going to have to give you a timeout," followed by the always necessary timeout once the insult is hooted again through gales of laughter.


Heidi said...

There are some "bad" words in our house. Stupid is what my kids think the S word is. Hate is another bad word. They know that potty words are not appropriate around other people, only when they are in private or they need to talk to Mom or Dad about their actual bodily functions.

Otherwise, we don't have too many other restrictions. Our rule is the "feel bad" rule. If you would feel bad if someone called you something, then don't say it.

My 5 year is old enough to get it, so Maddie and Riley should understand some form of it!

Sara said...

This will pass, and I wouldn't give it too much attention. They think they are all kinds of hilarious, and I think minimal reaction is the quickest way to squash that. A friend of mine used a line I love: "shit's not a bad word, it's just not an appropriate word for kids to use"-my 4 year old totally gets the idea of "appropriate", so that works for her. And we have pretty foul mouths, and a 13 year old in the house, so there's a lot worse than "stupid head"being said in her presence.

Karishma said...

don't overthink it. :) as annoying as it must be for parents to have to deal with, that childhood bickering is just as vital for sibling relationships as it is for puppies to play-wrestle with each other. it doesn't reflect on your parenting at all, but it will give them many a fond memory. set a couple rules like you can't call anyone 'stupid' or 'dumb' but let everything else be fair game. they're old enough to understand that, i would think.

Christie said...

I let Hen watch It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and he stopped the show every time he heard them say blockhead or stupid to point out that they were bad words and that we don't say bad words. This did not, however, prevent him from repeating, um, dickhead that I muttered in the car during a moment of near road rage. (Muttered, not shouted at the window to the guy.)

The laughter thing might get worse if you make too big a deal out of it, but if it is bothersome to you, a timeout is appropriate.

Vanessa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I can't think that anything that stops laughter is good. I would love to hear that laughter. Go with it!

A. said...

We have been dealing with the same thing, off and on, for about a year now. Due to the influence of one particular child at daycare, ANYTHING can be turned into an insult by adding "head" to the end of it. While I agree that stupidhead is worse than carrothead, for example, my four-year-old does not know the difference. So we are teaching him that "blank-head" is an insult, no matter what the word combination is. Kind of a zero tolerance policy on it, but instead of time outs we just remind him that in this family, we don't call people names. It usually stops the language pattern pretty quickly, without fuss.

That's our take, I'm interested to hear other responses.

Adam said...

I have no good advice, but you did remind me of this favorite poem by Billy Collins:
I think there's a lesson, but it's not for me to tell you what it is.

CV said...

A good reminder for me how much easier one kid is than two. (sorry.) I have to admit, this one post is the only one since you left that's made me NOT miss having a 3-child, 2-adult household. Still miss you all terribly, of course - just glad I'm not subjected to the "blank-head" business. Good luck.

Maura said...

I babysat for a family of five (5!!) kids when I was in high school. The two youngest, who were probably 3 and 4 at the time or a little younger, started saying "dummyhead." The mom's approach was to say back, in the same tone, "sweetiepie." So they eventually started saying "sweetiepie" instead, albeit in the same negative tone as "dummyhead." Not sure if it exactly teaches the right lesson, but it was better than being called a dummyhead.

~lifedramatic~ said...

Well, I guess I can't answer that question for you, and I'll tell you why... when I met my husband, I found out that he calls all thirteen of his neices and nephews his "little boogerheads" (From the thirty two year old down to the eight year old) :) In return, we are to the youngest known as Aunt and Uncle Boogerhead. I have to say, it's pretty sweet to get a card made out to Aunt and Uncle Boogerhead and signed by the baby boogerheads... :) :) :) <3 There's your giggle for the day.



Missy ~ said...

I have four kids, ages 1-8, and we don't have bad words in our house. Words can be used disrespectfully (name calling) or can be inappropriate (generally based on age or situation), but we don't call any word "bad".

If kids are laughing and throwing out "glue stick head", "silly head" back and forth, I would totally let it go. But if someone is getting upset by what the other one is saying, that's when I would intervene and talk about how we are making the other person feel.

Of course, I always reserve the right to just shut down the potty talk or silly talk just because I find it annoying :)

caro said...

I matter of factly send bathroom talk to the bathroom, where poop belongs. "You can say that all you want ... in the bathroom." No shame, just a reminder that there's a right place and a wrong place for poop and pee.

For less clear-cut words, among siblings, I go with the reaction of the name-call-ee. Is what you're saying (or the way you're saying it) making your sister cry? Then knock it off. Is it making her laugh? Then ok.

Anonymous said...

I have three boys, ages 12, 10 and 7, so from time to time, we do hear quite a bit of "potty mouth." The rule is that if it's said like a bad word, (in place of a bad word-which they seem to know what most of them are)then it IS a bad word. It's all about the intent. We also practice the golden rule. If you don't want someone else to call you that, don't call them that. Plain and simple.

todd said...

just echoing: it's all about intent. we let the boy wear out the potty words, letting him know that they were merely tedious, not "powerful." he seems done. in fact, now he censures us for our occasional profanity. we tell him that some words are OK only with people you know well, alone, and not for mixed company or public.

Gillian said...

No advice - just want to say this reminds me of What About Bob - the fake Tourettes that he does with the psychologist's kid.

This isn't that scene, I couldn't find it, but I still laugh every time. I guess I can't blame M&R! Bad words ARE funny! ;) PS Definitely NSFW


kathy a. said...

i think carrot-head is hilarious! and i remember my friend's little brother hanging out the window during naptime [he was probably M&R's age; we were in middle school] yelling "ninny-ninny-poo-poo-fart," and we thought that was hilarious.

but i think others have made good points about time, place, context -- and especially if they are saying something hurtful.

we didn't have a whole lot of word rules, except about not saying socially unacceptable ones in public, and especially about taunting someone. as my kids edged up to middle school, i was, however, the mom who pulled the car over for a lecture if a visiting kid started telling gay jokes in the back seat. those are hurtful words, even if no gay kids are around to hear them. same for other disparaging talk about "others."

kindsfather said...

I drink a lot of wine. And I say "stop saying that" quite often. My 5 year olds LOVE testing their options when it comes to saying naughty words. The other day - Cole said "I know what the S word is" - I about lost my mind. Turns out the S word is STUPID. Thank GOD for that. I was sure they were more advanced than that.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note to echo the emphasis on intent. I have an almost-6 and almost-3 year old, and they ADORE calling each other "funny" names. I let it go until they descend into questionable names. If they have a mean-ish focus (dummy) I just ask them to confirm that the other kid knows what the word means and is okay with it. If a bathroom-related word, I reiterate our rule about potty words (fine to say them in the bathroom, but not elsewhere).

Another thing: I often find that the kids don't really know the meaning of words. Sometimes, in hushed tones, they'll ask, "what is a "booby"?", etc., clearly having heard it elsewhere. So, you can also use this as an opportunity for the children to understand and learn other words.

But, you know, fundamentally, your kids will be fine! I swear. ;)

Lizard said...

we try to frame it as things that are Ok to say at home but not elsewhere, because there are many people who will be offended by a kid saying them in public. We talk about how a lot of people will change their perception of her based on what she says and how she says it, really forever, and that she needs to understand what type of language you can use when and with whom.

that said, please enjoy this poem


it is a very most excellent poem by former poet laureate Billy Collins

mek said...

Just more evidence that this phase is unstoppable: at my daughter's last preschool, they had Chinese class once a week. Week three was parts of the body. By that afternoon, the teachers realized the kids had already learned how to say "bottom-head" and "foot-head" and anything else they could put with "head" that made them laugh. Sigh. In my house, this was a quickly passing phase, but only because it is so much more fun to tell the beloved "chicken butt" jokes.

Carey said...

How funny...I was talking with a friend about this same situation! I never experienced it with my daughter (now 5), but since my son turned 3, I cringe sometimes at what comes out of his mouth...especially since starting daycare. We try to emphasize how it isn't nice to call names, even when being silly, and when the name-calling turns to "potty talk" (because "poopyhead" and "poopyeye" seem to be his favorite expressions), then the "time out" is spent sitting on the step stool in the bathroom. If I can intervene early, I say "Hey! That's not a nice thing to say. But you can say "Mommy mommy mo mommy banana fana fo fomi me my mo mommy mommy!" And then I get silly with rhymes: Mommy Mommy...salami! Jane Jane...on a Train in the Rain! Hope this helps!!

Anne K. said...

I had to chime in on this one, although I'm late to the party!

As another communications professional, I was also loathe to label words as "bad" when my daughter was young. I still believe there's no such thing as a "bad word." Words are just words, after all. I do believe, however, in the notion of "inappropriate language." I used that term a lot and even as a very young child, my daughter always understood. I really wanted her to know that tone, attitude, and other factors played into the appropriate use of language, just as much as the words themselves.

It really helped her to make appropriate choices, I felt -- some things were appropriate to say at home, or if you were a grownup and hit your thumb with a hammer, and these same things wouldn't be appropriate to say around Grandma, at school, etc.

Seems vague, I know, but it really worked for us.

kyouell said...

I want to thank everyone for the discussion not just a wonderful post. It's been thought-provoking for me. My son has Down syndrome and I'm one of those parents that is very touchy about the R-word. (My husband isn't; ah, conflict.) I overheard some boys (6th or 7th graders, I think) playing outside and calling each other "retard" one day and froze. They didn't know a grown-up could hear them, were on that fine line between making each other laugh and
starting to hurt each others' feelings and I was dealing with a poopy diaper. I didn't feel like it was time for me to have a teaching moment even if it would have been a good one for them. I've struggled since then wondering what would I have liked to say so that I will be prepared for next time, knowing and bracing myself because I know there WILL be a next time.

I like the ideas here about inappropriate language for a place/time and about how others will judge you by the language you use. Both are good points for me to incorporate into my not-yet-fully-formed teaching moment. Thanks for the help.