Welcome back to Parental Advisory, where I answer all of your social media and IRL parenting etiquette questions. This week, we’re talking about kids who say the darndest things.
My husband and I were recently at a friend’s house who has a 5 year old son who doesn’t get a lot of discipline (a cage-free child, as it were) and as a result, the kid is an absolute terror. We put up with him for the sake of our friend, but last week as we were leaving he said something incredibly rude to me. We were left speechless and we turned around to look at his mother for some support, but all we got was a shrug and a smile. When something like this happens, what’s the best course of action? Do we say something to the child? Do we insist the parent speak to him? Call an old priest and a young priest to conduct an exorcism?
In general, the things that come out of kids’ mouths — especially around the age of 5 — are often “incredibly rude.” Children are known for being a little too honest, and if you don’t spend much time with them, it can be jarring to hear what they’re comfortable saying (and what their parents are willing to tolerate). Anyone who’s overheard a sassy child talking at a family dinner table in a restaurant knows what I mean.
That being said, kids don’t tend to be exclusively rude to any type of person. Instead, they exhibit an “equal-opportunity” approach when slinging insults, usually innocently, and most kids grow out of the behavior as they engage with the world around them. It’s the job of adults, especially parents and teachers, to guide kids toward more compassionate and restrained ways of thinking and speaking. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t always happen.
From that angle, I would say depending on the context of the rude remark, if the parent wasn’t willing to say something to her child in front of you, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to say something, either to the child in the moment or to the mother after the fact. Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher and author of the book The Gift of Failure, suggests speaking to the child the way a teacher might by saying something like, “That really hurt my feelings. I would not talk to you that way, and I wish you would not talk to me that way.” Of course, given that this happened as you were walking out the door, it might not have been the best time to have a “teachable moment” with a “cage-free” kid, so in this scenario, I would advise to either let it go and assume kids will be kids or speak to the mother about it separately. SheKnows editor and parent Alice Bradley proposes doing this by saying, “You know, that statement was hurtful/offensive, and you’re doing your kid a disservice by not calling him out on it.” She points out that “it might cost you the friendship. But then you’d be spared having to hang out with that kid, so…” And hey, she’s right!
We all want to believe that offensive statements made by kids aren’t reflections of the child’s true nature or a result of bad parenting. But if we’re being socially responsible, we have to consider the context of a child’s rude remarks and their possible origins. Kids are curious and opinionated, but there’s a difference between a 5-year-old making a casual (if rude) observation about someone’s appearance versus a 5-year-old saying, “I hate you and hope you die.” If the comment has a hateful undertone and gives you flashbacks from The Bad Seed, you might have a moral obligation to let the parent know you’re concerned.
But even if the statement was about something more typical, like your weight, I believe your friend missed an opportunity to display good behavior by telling her son that what he said wasn’t OK and why. Shrugging and smiling is a flimsy cop-out, so unless she had a valid reason to wait to address him after you left (and she may have), she should have handled the situation differently. I think half of what you’re saying is that you were shocked that your friend’s kid would say something so offensive, but the other half is that you don’t know how she dealt with it, and that’s worrisome. It makes you question her whole parenting style and who’s running the show. It makes you wonder if she said anything to him about it at all and the impact that could have on others. This is why it’s best to speak to her directly if what he said was atypical or came across as hateful, rather than shockingly honest but within the realm of kid-speak. Five-year-olds are sponges, and what they soak up may be detrimental to how they treat others. Based on your description, it sounds like there’s not a lot of discipline in this kid’s life right at the time that he may need it the most.
In today’s heated and potentially dangerous political climate, now is the time for all of us to recognize that parents are our only hope for “raising the change.” If parents aren’t doing their jobs and teaching their kids how to behave, that could translate to children thinking they can say whatever they want to peers, teachers and other members of the community. As Jessica Lahey said, “It’s important that we model civil, kind behavior for kids and that we also model self-advocacy. We must teach kids that they can speak up for themselves when people are not civil to them.” Sure, it’s always a good idea to teach kids to choose their battles, but it’s equally necessary that we explain to kids the significance of their words and actions.
Helen Kruskamp, a North Carolina mom of a 5-year-old and school guidance counselor, points out that kids’ insults could actually be good jumping-off points for discussion. She writes, “Maybe encourage the child to ask their question/express their opinion more politely. ‘This asparagus you made is disgusting and tastes like poop’ could be coached into ‘asparagus isn’t my favorite.’ Or ‘I didn’t know women had mustaches’ could be a nice jumping-off point for a conversation about differences making us unique, or a chance to start teaching empathy by saying, ‘I’m insecure about that. Do you know what insecure means?'”
Ultimately, it’s your friend’s responsibility to parent her child, and she should have said something to him and/or apologized to you for his “quirky” comment. But it’s OK to take the reins where parents occasionally drop them because your feelings are valid. With reports of bullying in schools on the rise at all age levels, it’s crucial that we educate kids on right and wrong and explain why our differences make us special. It’s also crucial that parents step up their games and effectively discipline their offspring. Just because a below-the-belt insult came from a kid doesn’t mean we have to shrug and smile and forget it ever happened.
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