Stephanie Young is a communications expert, mother of two and advocate for health and wellness. Through her blog, I'm Still Learning, Stephanie muses about being a mother and wife, staying healthy and calm and finding the positives in life’s ups and downs. Stephanie is also the author of the eBook, How to Eat Healthy Without Noticing: A Non-dieter's Guide to Eating Better. In addition to her blog, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.

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How NOT to speak to a child



One day last week, my ten-year-old came up to me after camp and told me that one of his counselors had made him cry. Baffled, I asked what this woman—a grown adult—could have possibly done to make him upset to the point of tears. He explained that she’d told him (and two other boys, mind you) that they were the rudest, meanest kids she’d ever met.

I kid you not.

I was horrified! For starters, my son may act out from time to time, but he is simply not a mean child. He has trouble listening sometimes, yes. He often acts impulsively, yes. He gets overly excited at times and speaks out without thinking, yes. But mean? Never. It’s just not how he thinks. But more importantly, an adult who works with kids should know that speaking to a child in that manner, no matter what the circumstance, is simply not okay.

Kids aren’t perfect, nor are adults. We are all flawed. But to name call is just unacceptable. Had she said, “you’re behaving rudely” or “you’re not paying attention to what’s going on” or “you’re being disrespectful,” that would have been another story. See, there she’d have been pointing out the behavior rather than assaulting who he is as a person.

Kids aren’t easy to deal with at times. As a mom of two boys, I know how infuriating the bambinos can be; my kids push my buttons constantly! But no matter how much I might yell sometimes, I am very careful not to label them… not to name call.

You’re rude. You’re mean. You’re disrespectful. You’re an idiot. You’re stupid.

It’s labels like these that kids will start to believe about themselves—particularly when it comes from an adult.  I mean let’s face it, it’s much easier to believe the negatives about ourselves than the positives, right? So why plant this seed in a child’s head this early in life?

Now, did my son behave inappropriately? Yes, a bit. Nothing too earth shattering, just run of the mill, ten-year-old-boy stuff. But a better course may have been for the counselor to have given me a call to discuss the specific sins of my child. Or better yet, she could have simply doled out an appropriate punishment (maybe a time out?) at the time of the wrong-doing. But a direct character assassination on a child from an adult who should know better? Simply inexcusable.

So how did I handle it? Well, for starters I addressed it with the powers that be at the camp, for whatever that’s worth. As for my son, I simply told him that while his behavior during camp that day wasn’t stellar (which we addressed during a separate conversation), he’s not a mean or rude person.

Though I am extremely disappointed in how this grown adult spoke to my child, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to discuss with my son the powerful effect name calling can have on a person.

My hope for my him from this experience is twofold: Frist, that he not believe the labels others try to put on him; and second that he think twice before calling others names.


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Comments (28)

  1. Ahmed 06/06/2016 at 9:53 am

    I totally agree (Y)

  2. ~j. 07/30/2013 at 8:42 pm

    I dealt with this sort of thing a little over a year ago, but it wasn’t an adult in any sort of authority, it was just some man-bully yelling at my daughter on the playground.

  3. Nicole Connolly, Ph.D. 07/24/2013 at 3:24 pm

    Kids’ lives are full of teachable moments like this one – kudos to you for recognizing it and for taking a negative situation and putting a positive spin on it. You’re right on that these kinds of experiences can help foster empathy for others in our kids. I’d also add that this is a great opportunity to teach him not only how to avoid internalizing labels but also to manage his angry and hurt feelings and how to appropriately assert himself (depending on the situation).

    • Stephanie Young 07/29/2013 at 4:55 pm

      Yes, Nicole. That’s a good point. There’s just so much that goes into teaching out children emotional intelligence.

  4. Baby Mama 07/24/2013 at 7:46 am

    I read somewhere, a while ago, that especially with daughters to focus your complementing and labeling on their personality, not just their looks. So, instead of focusing on beauty and looks, etc, focus on their kindness or intelligence. With Baby Girl, I always try to say, “Thank you for being so kind,” or “you’re a brave girl to go into the dark room by yourself,” or “wow, you’re so clever to have figured that out by yourself” because those are the attributes that stick. Beauty may pass, but being kind or intelligent will not. And it is the same with negative labelling – they will stick. People have to be so careful how they speak to others, and especially to children. I hope that Baby Girl will keep that in her heart, so that if she ever comes across a teacher / counsellor / pastor, etc that will label her negatively, she’ll remember the truth from her mom and dad (hubby tries to do the same)…

    • Stephanie Young 07/24/2013 at 9:21 am

      Yes! I totally agree. I am always looking for ways to call out the positives in my kids. It’s just too easy to believe the negative stuff, so why even put it out there.

  5. May 07/24/2013 at 12:02 am

    Unfortunately, we humans retain those negative statements longer than we seem to retain the effects of a compliment. So, as a parent, it makes an incident like this that much harder to stomach. You research the programs you enroll your kids in and make the best decisions with the information you have. When something like this happens, it is so frustrating.

    • Stephanie Young 07/24/2013 at 9:23 am

      Yes, May. So true. But at the end of the day, we can only control what we say to our own kids and talk to them when others speak to them in a hurtful way. That’s all we can do, really.

  6. Frugalistablog 07/23/2013 at 3:48 pm

    You are right to feel frustrated! And even better- good for you for using it as a teaching tool. I think calling kids labels is deconstructive. Do they know the difference between permanent and temporary like commenter KD says? Hardly. As adults, we have to be specific to children. Saying, “that behavior is unacceptable, you have now lost (x) privilege” is what I’m sure most educators would agree is appropriate. Why stop at mean and rude? Why not say, “You are horrible”. Oh wait- they should understand in their small undeveloped brain that you only mean, they are horrible in this moment. Not permanently. I’m being sarcastic, of course.

    • Stephanie Young 07/24/2013 at 9:24 am

      I agree. No, I don’t think they would get the concept of “temporary” vs. “permanent.” A label is a label, any way you cut it. ANd it stick with them.

  7. Kathy at kissing the frog 07/23/2013 at 3:14 pm

    Potato, potahto, does it really make a difference how we say it? Yes, it does. I whole heartedly agree with you Stephanie. Let the child know that the choice he made was not appropriate and talk about what would have been better. Odds are, he already knows. Obviously this adult has not been properly trained in how to manage children and she passed her frustration level, handling it poorly.

    • Stephanie Young 07/24/2013 at 9:25 am

      She certainly handled it poorly, in my opinion. I expect more from those who care for my children. They should be held to a higher standard.

  8. KD 07/23/2013 at 1:39 pm

    While an adult calling my child “ugly” or “stupid” would have me as incensed as you appear to be, “You’re mean” and “You’re rude” are not examples of name calling or “character assassination”: they are examples of an authority figure (or even a peer) calling a child out on bad behavior. (Although, from the behaviors you describe in this article, it sounds like your son was doing a fairly decent job of ‘assassinating’ his own character.) Unless you left out some key details, like this woman going off on a tangent specifically attacking your son’s past and future instead of just his inappropriate behavior at present, you are overreacting. If more parents and responsible adults called out their own children’s ‘bad’ behavior with anywhere near the same regularity that they call out their child’s ‘good’ behavior, we would not have the rampant (almost always undeserved) sense of entitlement that plagues society. You should have been apologizing to that woman for your child’s behavior, not taking it up with “the powers that be”.

    You say your son “is not a mean or rude person”. Apparently, that day, he was. Is he usually that way? Probably not. Just as our children’s negative behaviors don’t apply to them all day, every day (rude, mean, nasty, whiny), neither do their positive behaviors (generous, helpful, friendly, kind). The word “are” (especially when used as a contraction like “You’re”) is not exclusive to permanent traits or conditions. “You’re a human,” is permanent; “You’re thirsty,” is short term, and no longer applies once you’ve had a glass of water two minutes later. You know this, and I hope that when you told him that “mean” and “rude” aren’t words that define him as a person overall, you pointed out to your son that he WAS rude and he WAS mean, and you expect him not to be either at camp in the future.

    My oldest, 7, leaves for camp for four days on Thursday. If he’s impulsive, over excited, speaks without thinking about appropriateness beforehand, and especially if he has trouble listening, his counselors had better speak to him about it (and preferably let me know, too). If what he is doing is hurtful (regardless of intention) to another child or adult, it had better not be tolerated. If, after a simple warning, he continues to do any of these things, I expect that he’ll be told that he is rude and that he is mean–the same way I expect them to tell him he’s a good listener when he follows directions, or that he’s a good helper should he help another camper with completing a task. And I’m not going to get hung up on whether they say, “You’re rude. You’re mean.” or “You’re being rude. You’re being mean.” Because, whichever way it’s said, it would be correct in that scenario. I speak both ways to my kids.

    Bottom line: Good and bad are both temporary. When a ten year old kid (or seven, five, or two year old kid) who is being rude and, in doing so, being mean to a peer or adult, saying, “You’re rude! You’re mean!” is not name calling. It’s calling it like it is.

    • Courtney 07/23/2013 at 3:33 pm

      Being called the “rudest, meanest kids she has ever met” is a very harsh statement and inappropriate when working with kids, especially when they are not your kids. To me, it sounds like the counselor was very frustrated, but LANGUAGE matters 100% of the time. I am a mom and teacher, and even if those words flash through my mind, I DO NOT SAY THEM. They are harsh and inappropriate. Even if the boys were demonstrating psychopathic tendencies, they should have not have been called, “the rudest or meanest” anything. Those are the WRONG WORDS no matter what the context is.

      Do you believe that your child would be the rudest or meanest person that an adult has met??? Any parent or teacher would answer NO.

      Language matters when working with kids, especially if they are not your own. (Even when they are your kids, that language will not change the behavior).

      Harsh words can sever or destroy a relationship that is VITAL when working with kids. Counselors, college students and adults who work with kids for pay, HAVE to understand this.

      Also, Steph turned this into a learning experience for her son, which is the right thing to do when something like this happens.

      People and kids make mistakes and they need to be handled correctly so they can be learning experiences.

    • Kim Bongiorno 07/23/2013 at 4:21 pm

      I agree that more parents/adults need to speak up and be more “it takes a village” when it comes to children’s behavior. Particularly adults in charge. My friends and I all know one another’s expectations of out kids’ behavior, and if one of the others’ gets out of line in front of us, we all welcome another one of us saying something to them.

      I have explained to my own kids how there is a difference between being something and acting like something. I have told them when they are acting like jerk, because that is a decision – they are more than capable of making a better decision to not act like a jerk.

      What I do NOT agree with is HOW this woman spoke to these children.

      It is one thing to put her foot down and say “WHOA whoa whoa – that is out of line. We expect you not to act rudely/mean to one another.” This woman made a blanket statement that was rude and judgmental and cruel. And if THESE kids were the – and I quote – “rudest, meanest kids” she’s ever met, then she needs to quit being a camp counselor and go see a therapist. Her judgement is skewed and she should not be speaking with impressionable children.

      Choosing to tell children they are the worst ANYTHING as if it is a factual statement does nothing good for them, especially if the adult saying so doesn’t actually know the children well enough to make an accurate statement.

      How will the children learn to be more respectable, learn to choose to be less mean when the adults around them model exactly that behavior?

    • Stephanie Young 07/24/2013 at 9:26 am

      I am going to have to respectfully disagree.

    • Stephanie Young 07/29/2013 at 7:01 am

      KD, I have to respectfully disagree.

  9. Jennifer 07/23/2013 at 6:29 am

    I am so sorry that this happened to your son. It is so sad how a few nasty words from one adult can hurt a child. I had a similar situation with my 3 year old son a few months ago – with his swim teacher! He was really struggling with swimming one day and isn’t the best listener (hello – he is 3!), but she told him that he was wasting her time and the time of the other kids in the class. She then forced him to go under water – while he was crying – and when he came up choking and still crying, she told him it was his fault for keeping his mouth open under water. I pulled him out at that point and addressed it with the director right away, but in just a couple of minutes, she took away all of his confidence in swimming, made him afraid of the water, afraid of other swim teachers, and very sad. Months later and I am still not over it. If you can’t find the right words to say to a child or if you are too angry, then just walk away! The hurt that you cause cannot be taken back.

    • Stephanie Young 07/23/2013 at 9:09 am

      Jennifer, I am speechless. That is awful! And this is a 3 year old, no less! I’m fired up even reading about that. Seriously, some people are just in the wrong line of work.

  10. Linda 07/22/2013 at 11:05 am

    Wow! I don’t even have anything else to say – I’m appalled that an adult would speak that way to a child. I’ve gotten quite upset at the way children in my class have behaved, but I’ve never called them names. I’ve told them how their actions were inappropriate and that I was disappointed that they chose to act that way, but I’ve never called them names – that’s just way out of line. Sorry he had to experience that, but kudos to you for being able to turn it into a learning experice.

    • Stephanie Young 07/22/2013 at 2:22 pm

      I pretty much try to turn everything into a learning experience. Yes, it was appalling when I first heard it. Hell hath no fury like that of a protective mom! And you’re right, it’s all about the actions they choose. Thanks for the comment!

  11. Courtney 07/22/2013 at 11:01 am

    WOW! That is not OK. As a mom, teacher, and person this story makes me sad. When you work with kids, you have to be careful with your words, period. I think you handled it well, and I love how you turned this into a teachable moment.

    • Stephanie Young 07/22/2013 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks, Courtney. I agree. No matter how upset we can get with these kids, there’s a right and a wrong way to handle it, in my opinion.

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  13. Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha 07/22/2013 at 9:40 am

    Oh, that is so sad! I wholeheartedly agree that when it comes to discipline, we need to focus on the behavior and not label the child. I hope the powers that be took your words seriously.

    • Stephanie Young 07/22/2013 at 10:28 am

      Yes, Sarah. That’s always my goal. Behaviors need to be corrected. But let’s help our kids believe in themselves as human beings without defining them by any one behavior. Thanks for weighing in.

  14. Dr John Mayer 07/22/2013 at 9:37 am

    Good comments. Let me add: when you said “kids aren’t perfect” let me take that one step farther—THET ARE NOT FINISHED PRODUCTS! To just say they are not perfect conveys that they can achieve/strive for perfection. And it places the standard at the level of what we expect in adults, rather than always realize they have a lot of finishing before adulthood. And I mean well into the early teen years. Just my 5.5 cents.

    • Stephanie Young 07/22/2013 at 10:28 am

      Really well said, Dr. Mayer. They are not finished products. And frankly, I don’t believe any of us are finished products. I know I’m certainly not. It’s hard enough to navigate life without others telling us how imperfect we are. Imperfection is what makes us all human. Thanks for you 5.5 cents.