3 Year Old Behavior

Dear yayas,

My 3.5 year-old daughter is obsessed with the word “mean.” She calls herself mean, other kids mean, objects mean, strangers mean, her dad mean. We don’t use the word a lot and I model alternative ways to describe people/things. It can be funny at times, but it’s almost an obsession! It’s a “stage” that’s lasted for a good 1-1.5 years! What to do? 

– Cranky in California

Dear California, My 2 and 4 year olds say some pretty unbecoming things sometimes. I wonder where they pick it up…TV? The park? Their dad? (haha) Me? I suppose it doesn’t matter where they picked it up as much as my reaction to it. I try to casually brush off things they say that I don’t want to draw a lot of attention to. I don’t want my intense reaction to inadvertently make it a “thing.” Have you tried a casual, “We don’t call people ‘mean’ in this family” and then drop it? But I suppose if it’s already a “thing,” I might try a more firm boundary: “I can’t let you call everyone ‘mean.’ Please stop.” Still using a pretty emotionless tone. The broken record approach works pretty well in our house–I pick a phrase and just say it over and over every time the situation arises to use it. It draws a line in the sand about what’s acceptable in our house. Unless we draw it, it’s pandemonium. –Lori Beth

Hi, California! I would venture to call it a habit now and would probably have to explain to my preschooler that we aren’t going to describe people using that word and give her an alternate word to use. Kind of bait and switch…but really just switch, lol. I might also try some positive reinforcement with it. So, say for every day that she doesn’t use the word “mean,” you could give her a ping pong ball. Each ball she can drop into a vase and when her vase is full, she can earn a reward (whatever that means in your house). Habits take some time to change, so don’t be discouraged if she reverts and uses the word from time to time. Gently remind her not to use it, keep modeling the behaviors and using the words you prefer instead. –Cortney

Dear California, Since it’s a reinforced behavior at this point (because negative reinforcement is still reinforcement), I’d try to find a way to reinforce alternative word choices. Help her label how she’s actually feeling (since she uses “mean” to cover lots of bases), and then reinforce the heck out of those new words. You can also talk about how being called mean makes you and others feel, and approach it from an empathy point of view. –Diana

Dear California, Why not try “Oh, let’s think of something nice, can you think of something?” Side track them with this as a game. –Grama Claire Bear

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