Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My 10-year-old son has started expressing that he “hates” certain people/kids. How do I go about getting him to stop using that word?
For what it’s worth, he told me he hated some kids at camp, and I asked him why and what did he do about it. He said they cheat when playing games, and he told me he ignored or walked away from them.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Hate is a strong word. What makes you say that?”
Then you listen, then you can offer alternatives you think are more appropriate and accurate, drawing from your adult vocabulary.
Kids use simple words all the time for complicated feelings, because those are often all they have. It’s up to us to draw out the complexities and help kids understand and manage them.
I humbly suggest, too, that you give a think to the “how do I get him to…” construct. It’s more productive, and less frustrating, to treat all his behavior as originating within him, in which light “get him to” looks like you holding puppet strings. You can’t “get” anyone to do anything, ultimately, but you can teach him new words, or encourage him to think a different way, or even just challenge him gently to think further about others’ actions and motivations.
Re: Hate: Teach him to distinguish between the behavior and the person. “I hate it when they cheat” is much more accurate and nuanced than “I hate them.”
Not only a great point, thank you, but one that comes in a small enough bite for a 10-year-old to swallow.
Re: Hate: I don’t understand this fixation we have with banning kids from using the word “hate.” When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to “hate” anything. Never mind that there were many things I absolutely detested.
When we prohibit children from expressing their true feelings, we are telling them that what they feel and care about isn’t valid. That’s just wrong. I’m fine with digging a bit deeper, but as you pointed out, kids use simple words and that’s age-appropriate.
63 and Still Hates Cucumbers
Fair enough, but when the hate is for people, I think redirection is called for.
You aren’t going to deny service or employment opportunities to cucumbers, presumably, or if you do, the cucumbers won’t care. But when you start drawing lines between hated people and OK people, that’s where kids start to get familiar with the “us” vs. “them” construct, where the “us” status is reserved for people who agree with us, are friends with us, are nice to us — and “them” is the bin into which we throw people who for whatever reason make us angry or uncomfortable.
And that is where biases find their most fertile soil. Seems like a little verbal clean-up work now, while still validating their hard feelings, is a lot easier than addressing an empathy deficit later.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.