"You're a poop-head," says Sara her eyes glinting with anger. "Am not, booger-brain," replies her friend furiously. The two stand nose to nose, glaring at each other hatefully. In an hour, though, they'll be playing happily -- "best friends for life". Several kids, aged ten, are playing a card game. "Gotcha! Ha, ha, you're a loser!" gloats one, waving his cards around. Two others have their heads together, whispering conspiratorially, "Let's gang up and get him," they say, speaking about the "loser." Meanwhile the "gloater" is rolling around on the floor gleefully, shouting, "You guys are morons, you're the worst players in the world." Later, when the game is over, and the boys are playing ball in the park, the "loser" falls, scraping his knee. Instantly, the rest of the boys run to him, looks of concern on their faces, to make sure that he's o.k.
Parents are often shocked at the language and behavior that children display towards one another. Equally confusing is the "turn-around" that kids seem to do: one moment they're furious with one another and treating each other like dirt, and the next moment they're best friends: loving, kind and compassionate. What are parents supposed to think? Moreover, how can parents convey positive values about communication and relationships in the face of this bewildering phenomenon?
First, we must understand that "kid-speak" is different from "adult-speak." If adults treated one another in the same way that children often do, it would signify, at best, a breach in the relationship. At worst, the relationship wouldn't continue. But, as adults, we are often past the period of experimentation that has led us to understand the consequences of this type of behavior. Children, on the other hand, still have a lot of maturing to do.
For this is what the behavior we witness is actually about - social maturation through experimentation. As avid learners in the world, our children must manipulate and experiment with their environment in order to best learn about it. Much like a scientist will add or subtract one ingredient from a formula to determine what the outcome is, our children do the same in their relationships. What happens when you call a person a "moron?" Is it different calling him that in the context of a game verses labeling him "moron" in a variety of circumstances?
When children call one another names and act in derogatory ways toward one another, they are often also observing the consequences of that behavior. If Johnny has a smile on his face when your child calls him a "moron", it's very different than if there are tears beginning to puddle in Johnny's eyes. To teach our children good values in regard to how to treat one another, we must be keen observers of the kind of feedback our children may be receiving from other kids when they behave in certain ways. In addition, we must also be aware of whether or not our children are absorbing the information that they are receiving.
The first step in helping children learn from social experimentation lies in knowing when to step in and when to stay out of conflict.
In general, if you believe a child is being hurt, or if a child is asking you for help, then it's appropriate and important that you step in to help negotiate the conflict. If neither of those is the case, however, it's probably best to take a "wait and see" attitude. Remember that natural consequences - those consequences that the environment provides - actually help to teach our children the biggest lessons. (Think of a child touching a hot stove. Natural consequences dictate that he only does this one time.) Thus, when a child "oversteps" the social boundaries, he will often receive feedback from peers that will teach a lesson far greater than your words ever could. In the case of the "game-playing boys" for example, if the "gloater" oversteps his boundaries it's likely that the others will tell him they don't want to play anymore.
But what if that's not the case? What if a "gang mentality" develops? Or, what if your child seems oblivious to the lesson she should be learning? Here's where, as leaders in our children's lives, it's important to step in and provide some guidance. There are two ways to do this: either in the moment or afterwards when you are alone with your child. Let's take a look at both methods.
Intervening "in the moment" means setting limits on the language and behavior that kids use. It also means describing what you see happening so that the children can gain insight into why you think the social experimentation is problematic. In the case of the game-playing boys, it might sound like this: "Guys. I'm seeing and hearing a lot of hurtful language going on. (Describing the problem) I feel concerned that someone is going to get his feelings hurt. (Naming the possible consequence.) I want you to use 'good sportsmanship' (you may have to describe what that means) or I'll ask you to play another game. (Setting the limit)"
Processing with your child afterwards is not that different, except in its timing. Your communication might sound like this: "I've been thinking about the playdate you had today. I guess it's been on my mind because I was concerned about the words I was hearing, like "booger-head". Words can be very hurtful, even when you're just playing. I saw that Jennifer had tears in her eyes when the two of you were calling each other names. I'd like for you to find other ways to speak to her when you're angry with her."
Finally, remember that social experimentation is about balance. The experimentation MUST be balanced by the lessons your child is learning, and the negative values that she experiments with by the positive values you see in her. When the scale gets tipped toward the negative, it's always time to intervene.