9 Words Parents Should Never Call Their Kids
The rhyme says “words will never hurt me,” but when said to children, these could cause damage.
There is something deeply divisive about the (often heavily policed) suggestion that people should avoid language that offends or alienates historically marginalized groups. The fight over the efficacy and cultural importance of political correctness has long been a major battle between American conservatives and liberals. But the way adults talk to children, arguably one of the most marginalized groups in the world, should not be considered part of that debate. Moderating speech toward children is not self-censorship, but guidance and good parenting. And it matters.
Scientists have demonstrated for decades that adults’ words exert tremendous power over a child’s developing mind. What a parent says to their kid has very real consequences, and there are words that seem to have overwhelmingly negative consequences. None of this has to do with culture or background — this has to do with the practical ramifications of adults’ actions. So, yes, there are words that should be removed from the vocabulary of adults, not in the interest of furthering a cultural or political agenda, but in the interest of helping kids become happy adults.
Here are nine of those words.
The label of “bossy” is generally applied to little girls who take on a leadership role in group play. This is totally understandable. It can, because of the nature of gender and cultural indoctrination, be shocking to see girls guiding their play-group. The problem with calling a girl “bossy” is that it’s levied as criticism. A girl who is called “bossy” is basically being told she shouldn’t take on the role of a leader. What is the supposed bossy girl doing? She’s being assertive. She’s having ideas and arguing for the merit of those ideas. And assertiveness should be encouraged in girls as much as it is encouraged in boys.
This is not to say that kids don’t need to work on their delivery. If a parent has a problem with any child making demands of their peers, the issue is probably more with the delivery rather than the leadership itself. They’d do better to lean into a girl’s assertiveness and instead address the delivery of their leadership style.
The idea of a child being “spoiled” is one largely championed by America’s pilgrims. These religiously motivated pioneers were so fearful of sparing the rod that they often took kids away from parents and put them directly to work to keep them from the dire fate of spoilage.
But the idea of spoiling has less to do with the kid than it has to do with the parent. It turns out that a child who has been given every privilege can, in fact, grow to be a well-adjusted, pro-social, empathetic, and giving adult as long as parents support those values in their homes. Calling a child “spoiled” makes it clear that a parent feels there’s some irreversible rottenness inside their kid. But perhaps more damagingly, it also masks the blame for who might be responsible for modeling greed, selfishness, and feelings of entitlement. That would be the parent.
Is it bad to praise a kid? Nope. But it can be counterproductive, which is the sneaky danger in calling a little kid “smart.” The suggestion of being smart is that a kid was simply born with some innate intelligence that allows them to easily solve certain problems. But that discounts the actual tools a kid needs to solve a problem, like creative thinking, perseverance, and concentration.
What happens when a kid who believes themselves to be “smart” comes across a problem they can’t solve or that they struggle with? A hard problem can become an identity crisis. So, instead of empty compliments, a parent can help a kid by praising the specific tactics a child used to solve a problem. That way, “Gosh, you’re so smart,” becomes the much more helpful and actionable, “I really like the way you stuck with it to find a solution.”
Smart’s evil twin is “stupid,” or “dumb,” or any synonym of the word. Not only is this ableist language, but part of the reason calling a kid stupid is so damaging is that they understand what a debasing epithet it is. They get that it’s shocking for one kid to call another kid “stupid.” The word is the equivalent of one adult calling another adult a “fucking moron,” and carries just as much weight in Kindergarten circles.
So how much more damaging is it, then, for a kid to hear the label leveled at them from an otherwise rational adult who they love and claims to love them back? Add to this the fact that many kids understand that the term is used to denote intellectual weakness and it becomes downright devastating. When stupid is internalized, a kid’s future becomes bleak. This is a label that borders on verbal abuse.
Most adults probably wouldn’t call their kid an asshole to their face. But any filter that might exist in the home is weirdly stripped away by social media. For some reason, parents feel like it makes them edgy and relatable when they tell tales of their “asshole” kids driving them crazy over one thing or another. But guess who the asshole really is?
After all, kids who are testing a parent’s patience aren’t being assholes. They’re going through the typical developmental processes. These processes lead to behaviors that help them understand both their world and their place in it.
Besides, why would any parent want to frame their kid as an asshole to friends and strangers who may have limited experience with their kid, regardless of what they actually say to their child in the home? What’s more, the label acts like a time bomb. A kid will eventually be able to find a parent’s social feed. And eventually the label a parent thought they were using behind a kid’s back will be glowing bright on the screen, right in front of their face. Good luck with that.
Kids are inherently and naturally egocentric. That’s because until about 3 years old, they have yet to fully develop “theory of mind” which is the ability to understand that other people can have thoughts and feelings that are different from their own.
What does that mean? It means a toddler simply cannot understand why, when they want juice, anybody would have a different perspective. It might seem “selfish” for a kid, but selfishness presumes malice. And thinking a kid is malicious and labeling them as malicious is dangerous for both the kid and the parent.
This is not to say that kids shouldn’t understand that their actions have consequences on the way others feel. In fact, the best method for teaching the lesson of consequences — guilt — is good for kids to feel. But calling a kid “selfish” isn’t helpful in that endeavor. Helping them build empathy by walking through the steps of their actions and the results of their actions is a much better tactic.
Like “selfish,” calling a kid a “liar” assumes they have some evil intent when trying to deceive. The first problem with the word is that most kids aren’t being malicious in their lies. The second problem with calling a kid a “liar” is that it completely misunderstands all of the incredibly complex intellectual milestones a kid has to hit in order to tell a lie — milestones that should, in fact, be celebrated.
The label is also a good way to confuse a child about the fact that there are lies that society encourages people to tell every day. After all, no matter how grandma smells, we never, ever, say anything about it.
There is a distinction that needs to be made with the label “princess”: If a little girl has adopted the label herself and is inspired by princesses who are heroines, then, by all means, parents should let her be a princess. But there is absolutely no need for parents to pigeonhole a little girl into a demure, pink, princess box before they’ve had a chance to explore other avenues of identity.
Calling a little boy a “heartbreaker” is a favorite of pie-eyed parents and relatives who believe they’re giving the kid a compliment. With just a moment’s thought, it becomes very easy to understand why the label is gross.
For one thing, it puts the kid in the context of romantic love and sexuality a decade before those things should become a concern. It’s also one of the first steps towards introducing a boy to the idea that male gender roles are about power. Part of that power? The ability to break a heart. And what’s laudable about that anyway?
Sure, the alleged heartbreaker may not be able to understand gender roles, sexuality, and romantic love, but the parent of a heartbreaker absolutely does understand. And that is really the crux of so many labels that parents apply to their kids. For many damaging words, it’s not about how the kids perceive themselves, but how parents perceive their kids and how that perception changes their behavior for better or, more often, worse.
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