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Why do children call each other names?

Last week, name-calling seemed to spring from out of nowhere. First one child, then another, and another. We are working to help the children identify the motivation behind it and find more appropriate ways of communicating and getting what they need. Most of the children have gained enough control to refrain from physically lashing out; they are just beginning to realize that their words are also powerful. We have been talking about this with the children, and Kelly and I did some role-playing in circle the other day.

Very often children lash out because they feel excluded, feeling out of connection. Though it is counter-intuitive, it is often a desire to connect that drives divisive behavior. When children hurt each other, physically or emotionally, we ask them to check to see that everyone is okay, to see if there is something to do to help the wounded child, and then we help them come (back) into connection with each other.

We decided we will follow the same strategy with name-calling. As parents, you can help too by arranging play-dates with a variety of children because the more they get to know each other, the more they find in common.

But this is a bigger problem; not only with the children, but also with us.

In our discussion about this we noticed our own attitude; we considered this a "childish" problem, as if we were above their behavior. But our attitude that this is a childish problem created an instant divide between us and them.

But wait, do grown-ups call names? At first we laughed at the thought of calling each other "poopy pants", but we actually do; just silently, in our heads, all the time. Our name-calling has just become internalized. Even the more benign labels have an edge, - feminist, conservative, teenager - they diminish the other and separate us.

And quieter than the labels are the silent voices, the thought voices. Can you hear them? As we drive our cars, as we wait in lines, as we watch the news, our inner voices constantly judge other people's choices, their actions, their affiliations, the way they look, what they wear. We strengthen our own sense of right, our sense of self, by making "others" from brothers. It is as if we can only know and appreciate ourselves by knowing that we are NOT THEM. Any little difference will do. And even more amazing is that in all these things we constantly judge ourselves as well.

Kelly asked, "What happens when we start to believe the names we call?"
And we do believe them, we cling to them.

And then she said, "When we exclude others we exclude ourselves."
Which prompted an image for me - we set out to build fences to keep the others out, one section at a time - but a fence that goes all the way around is no more than a cage. We become trapped in small thoughts.

Kelly added, "So we have to be mindful of what we say, AND what we think. Because everyone matters, and we belong to each other."

How can we raise our children so that they don't just remake name-calling into it's internalized equivalent, lowering their voices but still raising fences? How can we reach deeper to relieve them from the judgment and separation? If we can do that, well, that will be something.

About the Author: 

Nancy holds a Master of Fine Arts degree with a focus in ceramics from Virginia Commonwealth University. She taught ceramics for several years at the university level. She often brings her pottery wheel to the Preschool, extending the ways in which the children can work with clay, and helping them to understand its properties in a tacit, experiential way.
Nancy’s own children both attended our Preschool, and she has taught here since 2004. She strongly believes that children learn best when they feel connected and accepted, and Nancy works to provide a group setting that brings all children into relationship. She enjoys the endless ways that children create challenges for themselves and test their abilities. It is important to her to work in a school which values genuine experiences, one that meets children where they are and challenges them to take their next step. A naturalist at heart, Nancy also enjoys spending time investigating the forest with children.