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.