Little Owen Morais may be only three feet tall, but he has a mouth on him that works just fine. “He makes up for his small size with lots to say,” says his dad, Adam Swinemar of Toronto. Although not quite four years old, Owen teases, tattles and talks back. “We’ve been battling potty words,” adds Swinemar. “Everything is poo-poo this and pee-pee that. Repeatedly. On a daily basis.”
To the vexation of their parents, many kids at this age are mouthy as all get-out. “They’re at an age where they are starting to get the power of those words,” says Judy Arnall, a parent educator in Calgary and author of Discipline Without Distress (Professional Parenting Canada). Here’s how you can handle four of the worst-offending behaviours.
“Children of this age are developing a real sense of self and they begin to assert some control over their own lives,” says Tanya Wight, an early childhood education instructor at the College of the North Atlantic in Corner Brook, Nfld. When your child talks back, she’s usually copying what she’s heard and is testing to see if it gets her what she wants. What you can do: Try to be a good role model by ditching the sarcasm and making sure your words are respectful. Tell your child you’re not interested in what she has to say unless she speaks to you in a more acceptable manner.
Name calling and teasing are common behaviours for kids this age. It’s just another test of his power. He may be trying to make himself feel stronger or better, albeit at the expense of a younger sibling. What you can do: Explain how he’s making the other child feel. Suggest words he can use instead to express himself (“I don’t think that’s fair”). Remind him of the house rules — no teasing. Try to curb any conflict by distracting him with a new activity. And again, watch your own behaviour, says Arnall. “Kids watch parents get cut off [in traffic], and they call another driver names.”
Montreal mom Alison Palkhivala says her four-year-old daughter, Savannah, can be a tattletale at times. “When she and her little brother are fighting, she might hit him 16 times,” says her mom. “And as soon as he hits her, it’s, “He hit me!” Tattling crops up as kids start to learn about rules but are not able to distinguish between major rule-breaking and minor infractions. And for some preschoolers, perhaps there’s something just a little satisfying about getting someone else in trouble. What you can do: How to explain to your wee one the difference between when to tell and when to just let it go? Wight suggests a simple rule of thumb. “If you think it’s hurting anyone or anything, tell. If you think it’s annoying — but it’s not hurting anyone — you don’t have to tell.”
Potty words are obnoxious, for sure. “But they’re so much fun!” says Arnall. “Children know other people laugh. They know they embarrass parents by saying the names of body parts.” These words definitely get attention, and as Wight points out, “for some children, negative attention is better than no attention at all.” What you can do: Try ignoring the behaviour. This is tricky at Swinemar’s dinner table, where Owen’s potty mouth usually has his big brother in stitches. But it may be a matter of setting boundaries, says Arnall, such as saying these words are fine only in the bathroom. But in school, or around adults, they’re not appropriate. “The more attention given to the words, the more the child will use them,” she says.
Toronto freelance writer and mom Lisa Bendall can relate to mouthy kids, as she herself is rarely at a loss for words.