When I began reading “The 9 Words Parents Should Never Say to Their Kids” (Jan. 5 www.fatherly.com), I was skeptical that essayist Patrick Coleman’s point of view would line up with my own, and I wasn’t disappointed. Coleman began by saying that certain words have “overwhelmingly negative consequences” to children but only one of his nefarious nine met my never-say standard.
I don’t know of any mainstream newspaper that would even print the word in question. Furthermore, the sort of parent who would tell a child that he or she is (word in question) isn’t reading this column (nor Coleman’s either); therefore, to even mention it would be superfluous. One must wonder why Coleman even included it, especially given that there are more hurtful derogatories.
So, that leaves eight, seven of which I see no problem with, if used in the proper manner and in the proper context. For example, I would not call a child a “liar” but I would have no problem saying “You lied to me.” The former is character assassination; the second is presumably factual. It’s worth mentioning that Coleman thinks “most kids aren’t being malicious in their lies (sic).” Perhaps he and I hold markedly different definitions of what constitutes being malicious, but it simply is not true that most lies told by children are innocent.
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Coleman maintains that telling a girl she is “bossy” is sexist (my term, not his) because that amounts to telling a girl she shouldn’t try to be a leader. I have personal parenting experience with a bossy girl — namely, my daughter when she was a pre-teen. She was experiencing a good deal of social conflict at the time because in play groups it was her way or the highway. When she complained to me about her difficulties, I did not hesitate to tell her that other girls did not appreciate her bossiness. She was not being a group leader; she was being obnoxious. She needed factual feedback from someone who loved her. She finally “got it” and began making lasting friends.
I would not tell a child “You are spoiled,” but I would have no problem telling a child “You are acting spoiled.” The difference, which Coleman fails to make, is significant. Likewise, I would not say “You are stupid” to a child, but “That (something the child did) was fairly stupid” might be entirely appropriate under certain circumstances. Again, the difference is between using a word that maligns a child’s character and using the same word to refer to a specific behavior or instance. The same rule applies to “selfish” and “smart.”
According to Coleman, a boy should not be told he is a “heartbreaker.” That supposedly “gross” term “puts (a boy) in the context of romantic love and sexuality (long before) those things should become a concern (sic) … ” and also introduces a boy to the notion that “male gender roles are about power.” Mind you, I think telling a young boy that he’s a heartbreaker is kind of, well, dumb, but I don’t think that particular word contains the apocalyptic power Coleman ascribes to it.
Where Coleman and I really part ways concerns “princess.” He thinks it’s okay for a young girl to imagine herself to be a princess, but parents should not call a girl “princess” because that might “pigeonhole a little girl into a demure, pink, princess box before they’ve (sic) had a chance to explore other avenues of identity.” He swears he’s not talking about “gender fluidity” by the way, but simply saying that the label might restrict a girl’s options. I doubt it. I often called my daughter “princess.” She insists that it did not warp her self-image. She was clear that we were not European royalty. She is still my princess, but she is also still an underling to my queen.
When I was young, like Coleman, I took too many things much too seriously. Even so, I would not tell him that he is humorless. That would slander his character. I would, however, tell him that he would do well to lighten up. Come to think of it, I give that same advice to young parents fairly often.
Family psychologist John Rosemond can be reached at www.johnrosemond.com.