Several years ago, I was dropping my daughter off at preschool when her teacher asked, "What did you do last night?" My daughter replied cheerfully, "We had vagina pizza!"
Clearly, my coffee had not fully kicked in, because I actually stood their grinning like an idiot for a full minute before the pure shock of her response hit me. VAGINA PIZZA?!?
I replayed the words in my mind, trying desperately to figure out exactly how the heck she came up with it. As a small mustache of sweat beads began to form on my upper lip, I screamed, "A giant pizza! A GIANT pizza!"
My daughter has long since outgrown that adorable lisp. She's now 6, and discovering that not all words choices get the intended reaction. Communication with kids is tricky business. It's a life skill, yet one most individuals learn through a system of trial and error. I was visiting a Kindergarten class recently when I heard the following exchange between a 6-year-old little boy and his father during pickup. Let's call the boy Aidan.
Aiden: Dad, I hate Josh! He's mean!
Dad: You don't hate Josh; don't say that. We don't use that word. And Josh is your best friend.
Aiden: [In tears] I do hate him! He's mean and you don't care!
When Did "Hate" Become a Curse Word?
The thing is, at that moment, Aiden was in pain and didn't know how to describe how he felt. At that moment, he felt "hate," and he was trying to have a conversation in which:
- His feelings would be heard and understood.
- He could get support.
- He could be comforted.
Instead, he was shut down.
Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, LICSW, co-authored the book The Learning Habit with me. Donaldson-Pressman, a communication expert, explains why parents react negatively to the word hate.
Some parents feel that words are magical, that the expression of negative ones will somehow be a gateway to the child performing bad actions. Actually, the converse is true. When children are allowed to talk about their negative feelings and process them with an understanding adult, they are far less likely to act them out. The very term "acting out" describes what people do when they either:
- Don't have the words to express how they are feeling, or they
- Have the words, but aren't allowed to say them
Of course we're going to get a tightening feeling in our gut when our kids use an inappropriate word in public. I get that, I do. I know what it's like. It was only a few months ago that I was standing at my daughter's bus stop along with half a dozen other parents. It was a scorching hot week in mid-September, and I had just published my first book.
I stood there among all the other eager parents waiting for my daughter to bounce off the bus. Instead, she stomped off the bus and announced loudly, "I hate school and I hate homework!"
I live in small town and my new book -- the one I was euphorically bragging about -- is on homework and parenting. I suppose I could have been dismantled by her words, and for a moment, I felt a sting of embarrassment, but it was fleeting.
We started walking home side-by-side and I looked at her -- her sweaty hair and her big backpack and thought, this kid must be burning up. I replied, "It's SO hot."
That was it -- that was the response she needed to hear. She told me all about how hot she was in school, and how nauseated she felt on the bus. We made a plan to do nothing for a while when we got home but lay on the floor in front of our loud, ugly air conditioner with our bare legs against the cool wall while eating Popsicles.
And we did, and it was silly and delightful and one of those perfectly obscure moments that I'll carry in my heart forever. Embarrassing things happen; but I'd be heartbroken if my child felt I was mean and judgmental at the very moment when she needed me the most.
Portions of this article were reprinted from The Learning Habit by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, Rebecca Jackson, and Dr. Robert Pressman by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2014 by Good Parent, Inc.