A few years ago, I was in a very well known clothing store for children. I was going aisle by aisle, looking for things for my children, and for gifts for their friends, as well. I was in the “4-6 girls” department glancing over shirts when I saw the cutest, wide-eyed little girl in the world eyeing a pink snow hat with some of the Disney Princesses on it. You could just tell that this girl was in elbow-deep with those ladies. She called to her mother and said, “Mommy, can I get this hat for winter? Please? Please?” In a huff, her mother turned, glared and scoldingly said to her daughter, “Ew. Ucchhh. Really? Disney Princesses? Gross. No. Find another hat. Ew. That’s gross.” That is verbatim what she said. Being as confrontational as I am, but realizing her young child was with her, I merely caught the woman’s eye and gave her my best head-shaking scold and eye-roll of disgust. There were so many things that were wrong with that scenario, but one idea kept popping out at me. Forget about the fact that this mom was so dismissive of something her daughter clearly loved, and forget about the fact that this girl who probably looks up to her mother more so than even those princesses was likely embarrassed that she dared like that hat — but what does that mother think her daughter’s reaction will be to the very first girl she sees wearing it? Dollars to donuts she will say, “ Ew. Ucchhh. Really? Disney Princesses? Gross. No. Ew. That hat is gross.” Your children hear you, and remember everything you say, in context, and until they’re older, they adore you and think everything you say is right. If that girl’s mother wouldn’t let her have the hat because it was “gross” her mindset is that it IS gross and she will say it loud and proud, just as her mother did. That mother just created bits and pieces of a “mean girl” and if she keeps talking to her daughter the way she talked to her then, well, I just witnessed a moment in the making of a real full-blown bully.
In light of my disagreeing with what Jennifer Livingston did last week, I do not disagree with much of what she said. To paraphrase, she said that if you are calling her the “fat news anchor” and your children are there, they will call her the fat news anchor too, and they will call other people who look like her fat, as well. If the descriptive words in your house included “ugly”, “annoying”, “gay”(when not used to describe someone’s sexual orientation, but rather as when something is stupid), “retarded” (when used to describe something stupid), “slut” or worse, you should be prepared for the day when you either get a phone call from your child’s teacher saying as much, or when your child turns around and starts using those words on you.
Words hurt. Words offend. Be mindful of not only the words you say directly to your children, but the words you use around them. They are smarter and more perceptive than you give them credit for.
One of my proudest moments as a mother was when my son Max had to take an IQ test. He wasn’t in the mood to “play” (when asked what a cat says, he replied, “That’s a trick question. Cats don’t speak.”) and so the test administrator figured he would go straight to pictures of opposites — easy peasy. From what I recall, the first picture was of a tall building, and a short building. So Max answered, ” Tall, short.” Then came something black, something white — and so on. The test administrator then showed him a picture of a very skinny man, and a picture of his opposite. After acing all other pictures (he was 3 at the time), he stumbled at this one. Max said, “Thin. And. Skinny. And. Uh — bigger.” The word “fat” (which they were looking for) was not even in his gigantic vocabulary. I had to explain to the test-giver that we don’t use that word in our house. I don’t know if Max was given credit for that question or not, but I didn’t care. Unfortunately, kids learn enough on their own from other kids and events, and so Max now of course knows “fat” and way worse. But he knows when words are appropriate and inappropriate to use, that his words can cause damage, and that his parents are tough as nails when it comes to teasing and being mean. My hope is that more parents will learn as their children do through the anti-bullying initiatives in school , how powerful their words are and how completely devastating they can be. Parents, teach your children well, and learn from your children in turn.