A reader recently wrote into the Gay Uncle for some advice. Apparently, her five year old daughter Ariel has been having a tough time at school recently, acting out toward her teacher with stubbornness, willful disregard, and temper tantrums. The (skin) breaking point was reached this week when the girl bit the teacher on the wrist. Searching for a way to try to communicate her displeasure, the mom sat her child down and told her that, “Miss Robin loves you, but if you keep being mean to her she might stop liking you.” That night, mommy felt guilty that she was destroying her daughter’s fragile self-esteem, chugged three glasses of wine, confessed to Gunc, and asked for help.
The general G.U. take on talking to kids is this: be positive, set up realistic expectations and repercussions in advance, and by all means tell the truth. Sadly, this statement fails on all counts. It offers criticism but no constructive pathways for resolving the problem; it’s reactive and overblown instead of proscriptive and specific; and most importantly, it’s just not true. As a preschool teacher for 11 years, the Gay Uncle knows the classroom gospel: the job isn’t about liking (or especially loving) any of the kids in your class, it’s about treating them all fairly and helping them through things, which means providing the illusion that you care and want to help, regardless of their behavior. It was rarely the kids who acted out against Gunc that he actually disliked–the kids who freaked out, lunged, and had to be restrained. These were the kids who were clearly struggling and needed his help most. (It was more often the kids who were indulged, whiny, bossy, bitchy, bullying, or manipulative that goaded him into fits of hatred.) Moreover, statements like this–what the Gay Uncle likes to pitch into the category of “Not Nice”–are weak and ill-defined, both of which are meaningless to young kids, who need things to be concrete and connected to the situation at hand.
So what to do instead? Well, since the kid is 5, it seems she should be capable of having a discussion about what happened, going through the responses and labeling them appropriate or inappropriate, and coming up with some solutions that don’t involve trying to chaw a chunk out of Miss Robin’s arm. Since a tantrum–and biting, for that matter–are just about always atypical responses to emotional overload/exhaustion, and thus require room for the child to freak out and work through them without any further input, some part of the solution might involve expressing an understanding that the child is going through tumultuous time, and allowing parents and teachers to give her room to do so without trying to solve for it, lest they end up exacerbating the situation. (See GUG Chapter 8, “Pouring Water on a Grease Fire: Tantrums” for expert advice on how and why this works.) Finally, given the fact that making mistakes and testing boundaries is how young children figure out how the world works, kids need to be imbued with an understanding that–short of shanking their brother or intentionally pulling the legs off the family pet–if they fuck up, the people around them will continue to be there for them. This is particularly true of their primary caregivers–parents, teachers, babysitters. It’s not about liking, or loving. it’s about these people doing their job of helping kids develop. Oh, and make sure Miss Robin is up to date on her shots.