Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently our 3-year-old boy started saying “Oh s—” when he gets mad. We don’t curse at home, so he must be getting it at preschool. We’ve been ignoring it so as to not encourage him to say it (though it is actually pretty funny!). Should we do more? L.M., Albany
Dear L.M.: Your son clearly is quite advanced in verbal skills and in deciphering social cues and norms. He gets that this word has more power than the usual, “Oh, no.” Your reaction will definitely determine if this is a passing phase or his favorite sport.
Ignoring it much of the time, as you have been doing, is a good approach, but you also want to “catch it” as a great opportunity to teach about manners and acceptable ways to express anger.
Regarding manners, simply say: “We don’t use the word ‘s—’ because it’s not polite.” Ask him if he knows what it means. If he does, say, “So you can see why people don’t like it if you say ‘poop’ to them when you are mad. You wouldn’t like someone to say that to you, would you?”
You should probably explain “polite” a little more, e.g., “Polite means saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ eating with your fork and spoon and waiting your turn. We like that!” Ask for his own examples of being polite — at home and preschool. Make a poster of “Polite Things to Say and Do” to hang up where he can show it off.
Regarding how better to express anger, truly this is much more important. Most adults I know wish they had mastered more acceptable and productive ways of expressing anger and frustration as kids, or at least by now …
Here are three simple steps:
• Make a list together of what makes him angry. Share a couple of things, toned down to his level, that make you angry — some where there is no one to blame (rain on Sunday) and others where there is (preferably not him).
• Now ask him how he feels when he is angry. This can be very hard for a toddler to put into words. Have him show you with his face and his body. Make a list with simple drawings or illustrate with cut-out photos from magazines (angry faces, punching fists).
• Now make a list of words and actions for expressing frustration or anger using drawings or photos of him making angry faces. Create one column for “kosher” words and another for “traif.”
Together come up with a list of words that are acceptable to you. Of course, “I am really furious” would be beautiful, but you want words with more pizzazz and power. Try a Yiddish expression such as “Oy, gevalt!” He will love having his special expression, and you would be justified in finding it amusing. Here are some other good ones, none involving body parts or curses: “Oy vey!” “Vey is mir!” “Gey aveck!” (Go away!) and “I am ufgekocht!” (I am furious!)
Also, check with the preschool director, in the most nonaccusing way you can muster, about how the teachers are expected to react. If it’s more or less in line with your policy (and these suggestions), let the director know you agree with and appreciate the approach. If there is a wide gap, you need a serious conversation to better align the responses at home and at school.
It’s vital to address which actions are OK when your son is in a rage. Your rule should be (in so many words): “No hurting people” — including himself; some kids bite or hit themselves in frustration or rage — “and no breaking things.”
Here are a few options:
• Tear up old newspapers and/or crumple them into tight balls and throw the paper balls at the wall (provided he’ll pick up later when he has calmed down — with your help).
• Stomp on a partially deflated ball or a thick plastic bag full of old crackers. (Good sound effects. Make sure the bag is well sealed.)
• Hit/stomp/jump on a bop bag.
• Finally — and obviously — model, model, model. Let him see you get frustrated and angry (less often and less intensely than him) while still keeping your head and minding your language.
Wait 30 years, and you’ve got it made!