When Toddlers Pick Up Adult Phrases, Part 2

August 17th, 2010 by Dionna | 12 Comments
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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Kieran and I were at a local park recently. A few kids emerged from the treeline at the back of the park, and one of the parents (who were all sitting in the grass behind me) went to go get her 6 or 7 year old daughter. When she brought the daughter back to the grass, she spanked her and yelled at her for going behind the trees.

The daughter, ashamed and humiliated from her public spanking, cried.

For the next ten minutes, I heard the mother alternate between two sentences:

Shut your crybaby ass up!


If you don’t shut up that crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!

I alternated between wanting to cry myself (and leave so I wouldn’t have to hear the nasty mother), and wanting to go to the mother and tell her to pick on someone her own size. It was simply awful.

In yesterday’s post, I said that almost everything is cuter coming from a child’s mouth. Almost everything. Just as our children pick up on our catch phrases, they will also pick up on the words we use in anger, the words we use to discipline, the words we use without considering what damage they will cause.

As the mother at the park berated her small child, I wondered whether she would be angry with the girl for calling a sibling a “crybaby.” And how furious she would be if the girl dared to call her a name, especially while she was in the middle of grieving.

One reason Tom and I try to be gentle is that we remember some of the less than gentle moments of our own childhoods, and we don’t want to pass the fear and anger on to our own child.

However we treat the child, the child will treat the world.”1

When you are angry or frustrated, what can you do to take a step back from the situation and calm down before saying something that may hurt your child?

Photo credit: hyperorbit

12 Responses to:
"When Toddlers Pick Up Adult Phrases, Part 2"

  1. We have not always been model parents. In fact, we still aren’t model parents. The unfortunate side effect of being human is that we slip sometimes. Especially when emotions are involved. We’re working on it, though. It’s a tough road to come off of. But hearing my almost-two-year-old mock-yell at my eight (tomorrow!) year old whenever I tell him (the eight year old) to stop something is more than enough of a shameful reminder that I’m still finding my way to the best path.

  2. mamapoekie   mamapoekie

    poor baby. I was extremely shocked when I heard a friend say similar things to his daughter.

    When I am angry, I try to go away and regroup

  3. Acrophile

    We’re working on our tone and patience, too. Steps at a time. But when I have successfully NOT blown up at my 4yo and taken her bodily out of a situation when she’s behaving badly and won’t stop, and she then runs back into the room and yells in my face, “Don’t you pick me up like that again!” it is REALLY hard not to just deck her. I gave her a time-out. What do you do when your child screams defiantly in your face? All the “working on it” seems to be for nothing, and so what do you do in that specific kind of “moment”?!

    • Time-outs can work well when we give them to ourselves. They tend not to give a break when we force them on others. It’s hard to say how the situation got to that point without having been there. Generally speaking, it’s best to prevent situations from reaching that point.

      Although she didn’t use the best means of communication, she was using the best means available to her at the time. It’s often hard for adults, who have had much more practice, to adequately use communication when they are upset. It’s even more difficult for children who are still learning how best to communicate their needs.

      I don’t like being yelled at. I will calmly state, in a normal volume, or sometimes just under normal volume, “I don’t like being yelled at.” It seems that you were punishing your daughter for (inadequately) trying to communicate. I think it would probably have been better to state that you don’t like to be yelled at and that you need to go calm down. Then suggest that when you are both calm, you can discuss what happened and what solutions might work for everyone – not blaming anyone for problems but working together to find solutions.

  4. Amy

    That line your daughter used sounds distinctly like something an adult would say to a child, “Don’t you throw that on the floor again.” or, “Don’t you push your brother again.” etc. The very first thing I would do is figure out where my child learned a statement like that because that’s why she feels she can talk to you that way. To her it’s an acceptable thing to say because she’s heard an adult say it before (most likely).

    Secondly (and no judgment here) but it might have helped not to physically remove her in the first place if no one was in immediate danger. I don’t have the whole story but you might have found more success in asking her to come talk to you in private for a minute first (I realize this isn’t always successful but it gives them the feeling that they had a choice when emotions are already running high). Plus, it gives you some ammo later to explain that you wouldn’t have to do it that way if they’d be cooperative.

    Though I don’t have a four year old (yet) I think one of the best ways to communicate with your child and diffuse a situation is to help them understand and verbalise what they’re feeling. So, for example, instead of decking her (which, from years of looking after other people’s children I totally understand the temptation to do) help her work through the emotions. Once things are going down hill, you can say something like, “You are frustrated because ____. I understand it’s hard when you don’t want to (stop doing) ____. When I can’t do what I want or something like that happens to me I feel ____ and want to ____. It’s not okay to do those things but it IS okay to talk about them and sometimes that can help you feel better. Do you want to tell me about how you feel? What do those feelings make you want to do?” By getting into her head and helping her identify the feelings she’s experiencing you’ll teach her not to suppress and to be constructive with her emotions. Once she talks about how she’s feeling you may find the whole problem is solved.

    Good luck! I know it’s not always easy!

  5. Dionna – I’m so sorry you had to witness that and that that family must be in so much pain. There isn’t much you can do about such a situation. If you realize where it is going before it gets that far, a kindly stranger can sometimes step in and diffuse it. If I can offer help, I will. However, in such a situation as you described, I can’t just stand by and let my silent presence condone the actions. Neither will I subject my children to it. I wouldn’t keep my children in a situation where a man was physically and/or verbally abusing a woman, and I refuse to remain in a situation where a child is the one being abused. (For the record, I wouldn’t stay while a man was being abused, either.)

    It’s rather passive aggressive, but I’m always honest with my children about why we are leaving. No one deserves to be hit, especially a child. I really don’t care if the other party hears, and I don’t lower my voice. It probably won’t make a difference to the abuser, but that child might just hear for once that they don’t deserve that treatment.

    At our house, we often remind each other, regardless of age, to take a deep breath when someone is getting frustrated. The physical act is calming. The time it takes to take a deep breath gives enough time to remind one’s self to look at the situation differently.

    I’ve also been known to say, “I am frustrated that [there are clothes on the floor or whatever it is].” There is no blame. I’m just stating why I’m frustrated. My family can then help me with a solution. I’ve also announced that I need some quiet time and where I will be.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Fortunately Kieran didn’t hear any of it – he was playing on the spray ground. I admit, I sat there indecisive about whether to leave. I was far enough away that they probably didn’t think I could hear. In retrospect, I agree – I should have left rather than passively showing them that I was ok with the abuse.

      What would you say to Acrophile, who asked a question in the comments? (Third comment from the top)

  6. Brooke

    ‘Shut your crybaby ass up’….ouch. It’s so hard to imagine how a parent can talk to any child that way. I’ve seen/heard similar things recently and have been plagued by the same feelings as you. I sit there a bit stuck about what to do. I desperately want to go over and ask the mother if she is ok and if she needs a hand (because, let’s face it, if a mother is saying that sort of stuff to her child then there is quite possibly something else going on in her life). But I don’t go over. I don’t ask if I can help. I’m not entirely sure why I don’t. Perhaps in part it is because of the way society is set up – it is awkward and unusual to go up to a complete stranger and ask if they need help/tell them what they are doing with their child is inappropriate. I also think a part of it comes from being a relatively new mother (I have an 18 month old) and not wanting to come across as a parent who knows ‘better’ than the other parent. Neither of these excuses seem adequate really when you think about the distress of the child. Would love some tips on how to approach other parents in this situation.

    I do talk to my son about the situation if this happens in front of him. I do the same if similar things happen between other children too.

    As for myself, I’m certainly not a perfect parent but I have found that practising mindfulness has helped immensely with my own anger and frustration towards my son. I was having a particularly tough time about 6 months ago (when every single transition with my son seemed to involve a tantrum complete with kicking etc) so took some time to revisit the mindfulness principles and am happily suprised in the difference in my behaviour. I also continuously remind myself about what is developmentally appropriate behaviour. Doing this means that if my son tantrums in a public space, I don’t feel embarrassed,get uptight and try to stop it immediately. Instead I get down on his level and talk to him, knowing that what he is doing is totally normal (and therefore not feeling like a ‘bad mother’ and being embarrased by him doing it in front of other people). Doing this seems to difuse the situation pretty quickly.

    Obviously this could all change with the next developmental stage. I’m not sure how I’d react if he was older and able to yell at me/run away from me. I think I’d really struggle with not reacting immediately in that situation. I’ll be watching with interest for other people’s suggestions!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Brooke – I think a lot of what helped me in the last year was the realization that it’s all normal. I read somewhere recently that Americans just don’t understand what normal childhood is like anymore. Most of our kids are squirreled away in daycares and at babysitters for so much of the time that we’re not present for normal child behavior.

      And I just don’ t have answers for you, at least for the situation I experienced. If Kieran had been with me, I would have left, just like Mandy suggested in her comment. I’ve done it before. I don’t feel like subjecting Kieran to abusive behavior. I hesitate to approach a parent who is in the middle of an aggressive outburst, because I’m just not sure what the outcome will be – will they turn on me? Do I want Kieran to see someone turning their wrath on me (and by extension him, since we are still so connected)?

      Here’s a somewhat similar situation – Kieran and I were at the playground and a 7ish year old girl was being harassed by her brother and his friends. When they noticed me standing nearby, they stopped, and I said to the girl that she was better than what they were saying (I can’t remember what they were calling her, but I told her she was not ______). I told her that she has a right to stand up for herself, and that she can walk away or seek help next time.
      If I happened to see a child that had been hurt by a parent, I think I might try to say something encouraging. I don’t know what that would be – “you are worthy of love and respect.” ? I just don’t know.

  7. Shanti

    I am a far far cry from being a model parent. However, I have been known to lock myself in the bathroom, turn on the shower to hear the water running, and read a novel for ten minutes or so… I tell my kids that Mommy needs a time out to collect herself. When I return I am always much more level headed and it is for the best.

    As for the situation described. I seriously would have called CPS. Even if what was going on did not fit the state standard for abuse, I have called on a few occasions when seeing things in public. I always justified it with the idea that if this is what they do in public, imagine what goes on behind closed doors. Unfortunately, I have yet to be wrong.

  8. Sarah

    When I hear something like this I cringe, get angry and in the end cry. As a child all I ever hoped for was for someone to interfere – for someone to help. No help ever came. As an adult I can see why, but part of me aches for each of those children, especially knowing the battle they will face as adults, as parents.

    Of course now I also find it very difficult to step in – esp if I know the people. even though emotional and psychological abuse is recognized the system doesn’t acknowledge it b/c the effects are far harder to see – the abuse is easier to deny, easier to hide. a parent can easily say ‘I’m sorry it was a bad day and the other person misunderstood the situation’. Also from the amount I’ve used the system I’ve determined that it is flawed. Flawed to such an extent that parents who regularly spank their children, berate them in front of others are smiled at for some reason, but a parent (me) who has a bad day – never ever lifted a hand, but calls the help line saying I felt like spanking and asking for someone to talk to – has the RCMP rush over, social services, child protective services and told that until a psych profile is done and passed I must have some one with me at all times or my children will be taken away – I was also told to suck it up – all parents have bad days, I shouldn’t be wasting their time and a number of other things.

    That was almost 2 years ago – I had a 6 month old a 2 year old and had tried timing out – but when the 2 yr old can get into every room and just would not back off and all the parents around would have just told me to spank her and I’d feel better. I know me, I know my back ground, and I know that spanking is never effective. I never want to walk that path, and I never want to walk the path of insulting my children in order to control them and give myself power.

    Since that moment 2 years ago I’ve realized the internet is the best place for help and support in our parenting journey and truly appreciate having inspirational parents to look up to.

    As for the “I’ll give you something to cry about’ One day I was at my wits end and I was so close to doing something horrible – I could think of nothing else so I started tickling my little miss Ella. Luckily she’s never heard the phrase – but I have, numerous times and it just came out “What are you laughing about? I’ll give you something to laugh about.’ And the next hour was spent tickling and hugging and laughing.It really was a break through moment for me – and we use it when things are really tense around here.

  9. Jessica - This is Worthwhile   tisworthwhile

    Ugh. I NEVER know what to do in those situations. I want to intervene, but don’t know on what grounds I’d do it. And I certainly don’t want to make it worse for the child at home.

    In any case, I doubt that mother ever thinks about how her own modeling causes certain behaviors in her daughter. I’d be willing to bet if her daughter used language like that, she’d be punished.

    I was at the park the other day and a mother came out of an adjoining restaurant with food for her kids. She proceeded to screech and threaten her 3 kids to “Git over here RIGHT NOW” for 15 minutes. Bullying the older ones to wrangle the pre-verbal toddler. It was exhausting and embarrassing for everyone within earshot. The kids effectively ignored her causing her to yell even more. (Why she didn’t just go gather them all up herself is completely beyond me – she was certainly able-bodied.)

    All this to say, I wondered the same thing about their home life and how they all communicate with each other when mom models such awful behavior.

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