"It's hard to get by just upon a smile..."
June 3, 2009 10:24 AM   Subscribe

What to tell a young toddler about mean girls? (Well, mean toddlers actually.)

Context: Now that my young toddler has friends that are 2, 3, and 4 years in age, she’s beginning to experience the normal friction that most kids create and all are exposed to. So far it’s mostly minor physical stuff like being pushed while scuffling over a toy, for which I’ve suggested that she say “Don’t push me” when she comes to me for comfort. When she’s brought it up later, I’ve explained that some of her friends have a hard time controlling their hands and bodies while playing (kind of lame?) and validate her reaction in simple terms (“when he pushed you, your feelings were hurt”). I do this only when she comes crying to me or asks about it later; I try to not intervene when I’m not needed and overall attempt a sympathetic but not overly dramatic tone—a brief hug, wipe off her tears, and we move on.

(Not to give the impression that her playgroups are Lord-of-the-Fly-esque; the other childrens’ parent will typically intervene and order an apology for the wrong, etc. – this is fine but I’m not concerned about the other kids’ behavior, which I consider entirely normal.)

My question is: What do you say to a young toddler once her playmates begin to be overtly (although benignly) mean?
An example is when another kid tells her that her pants are ugly or that she’s stupid. I know this probably sounds incredibly minor but I would really like to find a way to talk with her about life’s little meannesses.
My initial thoughts are that I’d like to help my daughter understand that:
- such interactions are usually not about her (without villanizing the “mean” child)
- she can respond by thinking about ways to respond to the meanness (i.e., “don’t push me”) rather than crying/coming to me
- despite my over-thinking this (see above...) it’s not really a big deal – we’re all crabby and mean sometimes

Any thoughts on my approach or suggestions for ways to communicate a positive and effective message are appreciated! Thanks.
posted by dreamphone to Human Relations (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
"Walk it off."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:28 AM on June 3, 2009

I find your thoughtfulness about the topic quite touching, but I don't think your toddler is anywhere near old enough to understand these experiences in such fine terms.
posted by applemeat at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think "don’t push me" is good, and I'd add why she doesn't want to be pushed.

"Don't push me, it hurts my body/makes me sad/whatever". This gives her a bit more power about the situation just by being able to articulate it.

Also, this dovetails nicely with what is (hopefully) being taught to the other kid by her parents/teachers - that when you push somebody it hurts them "Look at her face. Does she look happy?" Empathy is a fairly good tool to get people to be nice to each other at that age.

Of course, any strategy will fail in the face of determined malice, so teach her to walk away, too.

I don't think your toddler is anywhere near old enough to understand these experiences in such fine terms
It's better to be ahead of the curve than behind it.

posted by dirtdirt at 10:42 AM on June 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

The statement "Please, stop." is actually pretty powerful for toddlers to learn. It is easily understood by them and lets them have a simple set of words to get something to change. Demonstrate this and incorporate it into your own interactions with your daughter and she'll begin to use it herself. When we taught this to our son, we use it on him and immediately respond to it if he says it.

Your explanation about other children not controlling themselves is very good.
posted by onhazier at 11:02 AM on June 3, 2009

I find your thoughtfulness about the topic quite touching, but I don't think your toddler is anywhere near old enough to understand these experiences in such fine terms.

This is entirely incorrect - toddlers understand these experiences in very fine, specific, and deep ways.

OP, you sound like you are on the right track. Don't demonize the other kid. As far as your kid responding, "Don't push me" is good, too; my daughter (3) was taught at her daycare to say "Stop, don't do that", and all the kids there say that when something is happening they don't like (usual the stuff you are describing).

Empathy is very much learned - so its a great opportunity, when your kid is the victim or aggressor, to talk with them about why what happened just happened. It seems easier to talk with your kid about how to respond to aggression than when they are the aggressor, but these conversations are important.
posted by RajahKing at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2009

This is how preschoolers are, and this is the stuff they have to do so they can learn the rules of being a person. You just teach them to use their words, and you model it for them when they're too frustrated to do it in situ. It sounds like you're doing just fine.

Preschool aged kids in general can't connect their minds and bodies very well and just don't get that their visceral responses to stimulus are totally socially inappropriate, although they often seem to get it just fine when they observe it in others or when they're on the receiving end of a shove or a toy theft--I think everyone knows a small child who is more than willing to narrate exactly who is doing what to whom for the benefit of anyone who will listen.

Another thing they don't get is that a certain type of play can be a lot of fun until it isn't anymore. A hilarious wrestling match suddenly stops being fun when someone gets pushed a little too far, and there's only so much of it you can manage for them.

Your toddler (not sure of the age) will also be the aggressor sometimes. It may not have happened yet, but she will eventually meet the kid or the game where the chemistry is just right, and the next thing you know, you're the apologetic parent in the equation.

I think explaining the behavior as you have been is beneficial more to you, as a reminder that it's true, than it is for your child. Focusing on helping her with the tools to deal with it is the more important thing here.

The thing that stands out though, is that you indicate that comments are being made about your child's appearance. I haven't found that to be very common among that age group, and although the older preschoolers I know are more than happy to whip out a good insult to another kid's intelligence now and then, I haven't seen it much with younger preschoolers. I don't really have anything to say about it, but it seems weird to me that it has happened often enough to make it one of your concerns.
posted by padraigin at 11:48 AM on June 3, 2009

Appreciating the comments so far. The "Please stop," or "Stop, don't do that" makes sense and is probably more far manageable for her than naming the offense (at her age).

What is really troubling me, though, are the imminent, inevitable verbal meannesses - the "you're ugly" or "What a stupid shirt." Such comments seem more difficult to respond to (for her) and to explain (for me). Additional thoughts on that particular issue would be great.
posted by dreamphone at 11:49 AM on June 3, 2009

In response to padraigin's question: you're absolutely right, mean verbal insults (about appearance, etc.) have not yet occurred. I'm just worried that because she has a batch of (somewhat) older playmates that she'll be exposed to it pretty soon. Relieved to know that it may still be a couple of years off...
posted by dreamphone at 11:52 AM on June 3, 2009

I definitely agree that it's a great opportunity to teach her to use some version of the phrase, "Please stop!"

Another thing that I try to do with my kids is to very gently steer them to think about how it makes them feel when someone does or says something mean so that they will be aware of it later when they are tempted to make someone else feel that way. It's a hard needle to thread though because you don't want to a) teach them to dwell on the negative feeling (by dwelling only on how badly it made them feel) or b) make them feel guilty (by saying something like, "that's why I don't want to ever see you doing that to other kids).

So if, for example, another child were to tell my daughter that her pants were ugly. I would encourage her to say something like, "I don't like it when you call my pants ugly, please stop." If she still needed comforting, I would hug her and say, "It's no fun when people say mean things to you. I'm glad you don't say mean things like that to other children."

As I think about it, I guess I'm teaching her to use a little bit of self-righteousness as a coping tool, but I'm okay with that. You might want to tweak it so that it feels less like "villanizing the 'mean' child." On that note, if the child is one you know to be a generally nice kid, you can always add that he/she might not have meant to be mean or something to that effect. I've noticed that by the age of 5 some kids have already established a pattern of bullying. In those cases, I don't mind letting my kids know that the bully is someone who doesn't know how to act, because I don't want my kids to feel like they have to make excuses for other kids cruel behavior.

Good luck. These kinds of questions are two edged swords: You sound like you're the kind of thoughtful parent who'll figure out the best way to handle it, but that means that you're probably also the kind of parent who hurts inside every time you think of the trials to come for your child.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 12:06 PM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Years ago when my kids were in preschool, there was this amazing kid. I was watching once when someone pushed her or said a mean thing to her. She said, very directly to the other kid: "Hey, you hurt my feelings when you did that! I want you to apologize!" The other kid was so startled that another kid confronted him mumbled an apology, which was politely accepted.

I was so impressed by her that I told her so (she said "Thank you") and I even talked to her parents. They said that they feel like all kinds of bullying and rankism gets started in preschool, and they wanted their kid to know that she should always stand up for herself by using words. It's a lesson I still am trying to learn, and I'm so grateful to that little girl for helping me.

It's definitely painful to see your kid being hurt by another one, but it's also an opportunity to teach a very important lesson about respect and how you can ask for it.
posted by jasper411 at 12:39 PM on June 3, 2009 [20 favorites]

you're absolutely right, mean verbal insults (about appearance, etc.) have not yet occurred. I'm just worried that because she has a batch of (somewhat) older playmates that she'll be exposed to it pretty soon. Relieved to know that it may still be a couple of years off...

My older daughter is a first grader, and has experienced a little bit of the more subtle and nasty ways kids can interact. She's somewhat shy and non-confrontational, but I've been really impressed with how well she can solve her own problems, and I hope it's because I raised her the way I have, helping her name her feelings and modeling solutions to problems so she can see how they're worked out.

She recently described to me how a friend has gone from bossy to quite bullying, and after giving me a list of this girl's methods (as I go from sad to cringe to KILL during her story), ended with "So we told her we just didn't want to play with her anymore until she stops acting like that, and she can be our friend again when she's ready to be kind". And off she skipped.

It works, is what I guess I'm saying.
posted by padraigin at 12:46 PM on June 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

When your little one comes running, she might be looking for validation. Sometimes I say something like, "Wow, that really hurt, didn't it?" or "Did that hurt your feelings?" etc. So that might be something to try.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:21 PM on June 3, 2009

Kids are usually mean because someone else was mean to them, or they witnessed people being mean to one another. That made them feel hurt and vulnerable. Now they think that if they are mean, they won't be the one to get hurt, and they can feel strong. They're "acting out," as the grownups say. Grownups do it too.

Sounds simplistic, but understanding that helped me to withstand a great deal of verbal abuse. I learned the difference between hearing words and listening to them.

I disagree with OP's comment that it's not a big deal. Learning to deal with bullies is a huge deal. It makes the difference between sobbing in the bathroom and being mildly annoyed. It makes the difference between the beaten spouse and and the person who chose to end the relationship. Bullies don't only live on the playground.

There are many ways to deal with kids being mean. Some of the most effective are:
  • Give no satisfaction: About-face and walk away as though nothing happened.
  • Show potential for consequences:
    - Tell a grownup.
    - Threaten to tell their mom.
    - Ultimatum: I won't play with you unless you're nice to people.
  • Cause confusion:
    - Agree. "Yeah, this shirt is kind of stupid."
    - Be assertive. And loud. NOT the expected response. (jasper411's story is excellent)
    - Ask, "are you OK? Is something wrong?"
  • Get a buddy. Help others who are getting bullied.

  • posted by zennie at 2:17 PM on June 3, 2009

    I agree that toddlers will not yet understand the human complexities of meanness that you want to share with them. When I was younger, I was taught to deal with verbal taunting and insults by either ignoring it or using Pee Wee's famous "I know you are, but what am I". It was explained to me that kids who were verbally mean were jealous of others and that that was their problem and not mine.

    I was told that if a peer was physically violent with me that I should fight back with equal retalliation (so if some kid pushed me in the hallway, I would just go push them back). I know the world is a little too cotton-puff for this approach now, but I was never physically bullied because I wouldn't give the bully the satisfaction of being a punching bag. Interestingly enough, I never suffered any ill consequences (like detention or a mark on my PERMANENT RECORD) for physically defending myself.
    posted by WeekendJen at 2:59 PM on June 3, 2009

    There is a very interesting approach to bullying at Bullies to buddies. For minor teasing or bullying, he recommends either not responding or agreement/confusion. Much of this behavior happens because the "bully" enjoys getting a response for the "victim". In some cases it starts out mutual until it crosses the line. In any case, you want your daughter to feel that she can take care of herself and that she isn't going to let someone else be the boss of her feelings (if their words are hurting her feelings, they are being the boss. If she doesn't let them get to her, doesn't get upset - because it's not true anyway or it doesn't matter- then she is staying charge of her own feelings.

    For example: "you are fat!"
    - pretend you didn't hear
    - respond with something completely different "I'm going swimming on Saturday"
    - agree and exagerate: "You finally noticed! I have been trying so hard to be fat and nobody ever noticed, it was making so sad."
    - agree and invite them into the game "Do you want to make a fat club - only people are the fattest fatties in the whole world are allowed to join." if the other child says "I'm not fat", "Well, I'm not really fat either but it's my fat club so I can decide who gets in. Do you want to be in?
    - if the kid doesn't give up easily, then "That's rude" or "That's mean" followed by "Go play with someone else, I don't like it." (the goal is to be mildly offended - "Stop that" can easily cross the line into an emotional response that encourages rather than quashes the behavior.

    Don't get the other kid in trouble unless (1) they hurt you physically so you need first aid (not just a minor shove) or (2) they stole something that belongs to you. Dealing with it yourself gets you more respect and increases the chance that you will end up friends.
    posted by metahawk at 5:23 PM on June 3, 2009

    The "Please stop" with situation appropriate additions also works with name calling as well as physical interactions. While my son is older than your little one, he recently used that approach on an adult who called him a dummy. That person insulted him and he went right up and said "Please stop calling me a 'dummy', I don't like it and it is not nice." That person was floored. When he told me about the incident, I was so proud of how he handled himself and then promptly followed up with that adult to make sure they knew that such behavior was completely unacceptable.

    As far as dealing with bullies, some of zennies suggestions, such as just walking away, are really good suggestions. However, they may be a bit tough for a 3 yr old to remember. Just add them to the list of skills you can work on with your child. As she gets older, you can roleplay scenarios with her so she can practice her responses.
    posted by onhazier at 5:23 PM on June 3, 2009

    Perhaps you could avoid teaching her to label other people. The other kids might say things that hurt, like "you're ugly" or "What a stupid shirt." You can teach her that some people say mean or hurtful things, and characterize it as "I wonder if Scooby was feeling grumpy" or "Why do you think Andy said that?" You can teach her how to deflect unkind words, and most of all, teach her not to bully. At toddler age, mean is a big label for a small person.
    posted by theora55 at 8:17 PM on June 3, 2009

    I was told that if a peer was physically violent with me that I should fight back with equal retalliation (so if some kid pushed me in the hallway, I would just go push them back). I know the world is a little too cotton-puff for this approach now, but I was never physically bullied because I wouldn't give the bully the satisfaction of being a punching bag.

    Where I grew up, retaliation was likely to either escalate the situation into a full-out fight, or get you jumped after school. I'm talking about elementary school, and I didn't even live in that tough a neighborhood. Really, I think the 'cotton-puff' approach is the same approach that keeps kids out of gangs.
    posted by zennie at 5:14 AM on June 4, 2009

    I'm not a parent. I'll just speak as someone who was trained for most of his life to handle these kind of situations with words – beware of going too far down the route of simply focusing on mental and emotional handling of the situation.

    It's hardly an appropriate lesson for a girl your daughter's age, but at some point, it's worth preparing your daughter both physically and emotionally for kicking the ever-lovin' crap out of a bully. Often outright aggression will get them to lay off, permanently, when no amount of enlightened peacemaking will do the trick.

    I'm not saying it should be your child's first or even second methodology for resolving a situation. I do think it needs to be handy in her toolbox for such situations, though.
    posted by WCityMike at 9:10 AM on June 4, 2009

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