The Problem-Solving Parent: Name-Calling: When Do You Step In?
By Eleanor Reynolds

Justin's a big baby. Look at that baby!

Cassandra is stinky. Hey, stinky!

Aaron has a doll. Hey little girl Aaron!

Rosa's a poop. Poopy, poopy Rosa!

Name-calling is a kind of teasing that kids do to make themselves feel powerful. Some kids do a lot of it and others never do. They may hear name calling at home, on TV or from other kids. Sometimes it breaks our heart to see a child being teased this way and our first impulse is to scold the name callers and make them stop. Sometimes it takes a great deal of control to wait for the target of name-calling to stand up for himself, and we don't always have that much patience.

What happens when we do step in and put a stop to name-calling? There are numerous possibilities:

(1) the victim feels worse because he is being treated like a weakling

(2) the name callers lose respect for the victim because the teacher rescued him

(3) the victim begins to depend on tattling to the teacher instead of asserting himself

(4) the name callers stop when the teacher can hear, but continue when she can't

(5) the name callers stop and everyone makes friends.

Any of these might happen and number five is more common than you may think. In fact, number five will probably happen whether or not you intervene. Children's emotions and moods are transitory: they come and go with the speed of lightening. One minute's enemy is the next minute's best buddy. We've all seen two friends fight, suddenly start laughing and return to playing as if nothing had ever happened. On the other hand, the result could also be any one of the other four responses. We can't really know the outcome.

No doubt, we all struggle with this topic. We want kids to be independent and think for themselves (within certain limits), but we also want to protect them from hurt feelings, traumatic experiences, and loss of self-esteem. Each of us also tends to react according to our own degree of empathy. Our personal feelings get tangled up with those of the child. It's hard to be objective and see a bigger picture when we are feeling a child's pain.

So how do we know when to step in? There are no set rules because each child and each situation is different. But there are some general guidelines that might be helpful:

IS IT FUN? If kids are mutually calling each other names, ask the children involved if they are playing and if everyone is O.K. with the name-calling. If everyone agrees that it's play, and they're having fun, you can allow it (unless they are using obscenities). Typically, boys think it's fun to call their friends names, just as they enjoy rough play.

IS IT REAL? If kids are usually angry and trying to hurt each other by calling names, have them stop and state the problem, as in any negotiation. From then on, keep everyone focused on how to solve their problem. If there is a target of the name calling, encourage him to say 'stop' to the name caller and be sure to reinforce his request.

IS IT AN UNEVEN MATCH? When there are two or more kids calling names at one victim, it is usually an uneven match. Ganging up or excluding are disrespectful and you should feel free to set limits and make them stop. Or you can 'equalize' the situation by standing next to the victim, facing the name callers with her. As in number tow, encourage the targeted child to say 'stop.'

IS IT REPETIVE? If name-calling is aimed more than once at the same child and that child doesn't like it, it's important to do some investigating. Some kids act as if they don't care, yet are hurting inside. Children who are abrasive and provoke name-calling may still be harmed by constant teasing. Our job is to protect all kids, even the unlovable ones, who may need the most help.

USE YOUR JUDGMENT. If what you're haring is disturbing to you, you should step in. Approach the children calmly and encourage the 'victim' to express her feelings Reinforce her statement with active listening, and follow through to see that kids are treating each other respectfully.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com.