Q: I am disturbed by our son Will's habit of making fun of other children, especially those who are in any way different from him. I have talked with his kindergarten teacher, but she says that she feels pressured to prepare her students for the tests they have to take, and so she doesn't often have time to deal with Will's behavior. My wife is less concerned than I am. She says, "Kids will be kids." What do you think?
A: I think you're right to be concerned. One of the most challenging aspects of child rearing is figuring out when a behavior is a short-term "age and stage" thing, and when it's a long-term characteristic that should be toned down. I would rather err on the "take it seriously" side. I also think that no teacher of young children should be so focused on academics that she can't find time to help children smooth the rough edges of their social behaviors. The standards established by leading early childhood education organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) support this stance. In spite of the pressures to ensure that kindergarten is educational, many teachers still manage to make it a priority to help children with feelings and interpersonal relations.
Start by Creating a United Front
Try to convince your wife that while it's unwise to try to make a child into someone he isn't (his temperament, learning style, and interests), it's important to provide him with steady guidance toward growing up "good."
In my opinion, raising/teaching our children to be kind to everyone is imperative. This doesn't mean I expect my kids to be angels — after all, I'm no angel — but we certainly can expect them to try, just as we do. If you and your wife agree on this, and better yet, if Will's teacher is willing to come on board and invest a little time in working on kind behaviors in her classroom, I think you'll soon get someplace with Will. Once you establish a united front, you'll need to focus on being consistent. That means the adults must:
- make a policy together that you all think is reasonable and enforceable
- pick up on any violations of the policy every time they occur
- take a minute to see the situation through
Time and again, I've seen parents and teachers defeat their own efforts by failing to follow through on a rule they themselves established!
Tell Will, "In this family we say and do things to make people feel good, not to make them feel sad." If he intentionally makes someone else feel sad, he needs to do something kind for the person he has wronged.
Every time you hear him mock or tease someone who obviously isn't enjoying it, say to the victim, in front of your son, "How did it make you feel when Will said that to you?" or, "Did you like it when Will said that?"
If appropriate, ask the child if he wants to tell Will anything about it. A child to whom Will has just said, tauntingly, "You don't have a dad," might say, "I do have a dad, but he doesn't live with us." A child to whom Will has just said, "You're not my real cousin, you're adopted," might say, "My mom and dad are really my mom and dad and I'm really your cousin. I have a birth mom and dad, too. Families get their kids different ways."
The victim may need your help in making her point. Ask her, "What can Will do to make you feel good again?" Ask your son, "What can you do to make Lindy feel better?" If the offended or distressed child says she would like to play with Will's favorite toy truck or to eat his cookie, so be it. As Will gets the hang of this "reparations" routine, he himself may come up with some creative ways to make things right again. Besides soothing the victim's hurt feelings, the objective is to give the child who was unkind a way to make amends, show kindness, learn a new habit, and feel good about himself, too.
Implement a "Kindness Curriculum" in Your Home
Even nice people speak sharply to their children, or insult or shame them in the heat of the moment or after a hard day. Be on the lookout for instances of this. If you or your wife catch yourselves speaking unkindly to each other or your child, apologize. "I want you to hop in the tub right now, and I mean it, but I shouldn't have shouted at you. I'm sorry I was rude. Now, let's get you in that tub! Do you want toys, or just rub-a-scrub-scrub?" It's always best to end on a positive note to minimize lingering anger and more unwanted behavior.
Just the other day, a teacher told me that she has only one rule in her classroom and that everything falls under it — be thoughtful of other people. When you give it a moment's thought, this does say it all, from being respectful of people who seem, at first glance, different from you, to listening to what your classmate is saying and raising your hand if you want a turn to talk.