For a bright and happy child my four-year-old daughter can be staggeringly dense. Take last week as we walked home from school. In a fit of curiosity or madness, she ran ahead with her eyes shut just to see what would happen. Well, you can guess the rest. After brushing mud off her trousers and tears from her cheeks I ruffled her hair, gave her a kiss and said, "God, you can be an idiot sometimes." So did I say anything wrong?
Not many parents are willing to admit that their kids – however clever they are – can do really stupid things. Toddlers stick their hands in their own poo, five-year-olds taste paint and 10-year-olds climb pylons. In other words, children, in all of their innocence, can act like idiots. But is it acceptable to actually call your child an idiot?
Now, I've called my daughter an idiot. Not in a nasty, snarly way but in a hand-on-the-hip, have-you-gone-mad kind of way. I laugh and she laughs. And that's not all I've called her.
In fact, for me, one of the joys of parenting is coming up with ever more unusual names to describe her when she's trying to eat sand again. I use dilbert, lug, loon, silly sausage, fool, tit, nutbag, spanner, lummox and barker, amongst others. I take equal enjoyment in calling her angel, piglet, darling, beaut, baby bear, true love, gorgeous and snuffle when she's not actively ramming her fingers into sockets.
I'm not alone either. Lucy Whitfield does this too. "We don't call my daughter Verity and an idiot. However, we do variously call her a twit, a nit-wit, silly, and my husband's favourite, a 'dollop'.
"For me it's part of getting your child to think for themselves about what is appropriate behaviour, telling them that they're being silly and why don't they just think about it for a minute before reacting.
"When Verity was much younger, she used to hang around the toilet door and ask me what I was doing. My reaction was always: 'Standing on my head and singing the Marseillaise. What do you think I'm doing?' 'Going to the toilet.' 'Well why did you need to ask then?' Of course, now she sits on the loo and announces 'I'm standing on my head and singing the Marseillaise!', so maybe it's backfired slightly...
Much of the debate about the parental name-calling of children focuses on whether this behaviour is damaging to a child's self-esteem and whether it will have a derogatory effect on how they interact with peers and other adults.
There's no doubt that children can be very sensitive to what their parents think of them and that continual criticism can be extremely damaging. Yet do the blacks and whites of this debate turn grey when you throw humour and love into the mix?
In our very close-knit family we've always called each other names, yet always with a laugh or a hug and an enormous amount of humour. My dad still calls me a fool and an angel (I am 41) and I call my mum a tit and a love. It's part of the family patter and now my daughter is a part of that too.
She knows that when I tell her to stop being a dilbert or a nutbag that I mean what I say but in a friendly sense. It's a bit like an early warning that if I have to tackle her behaviour again I'll get stroppy.
For Sue Marlborough, though, even when humour is involved there is no place for name-calling. "I don't believe that using the word 'idiot' in a friendly context is good enough. I'm not entirely sure either that young children have the contextual tools to understand the difference. You don't hear silly sausage used in a nasty way, but you do hear idiot.
"I'm also not at all comfortable with name-calling full stop. I wouldn't want my son name calling, so I shouldn't do so to him even if it means not using names like idiot, wombat, wally and others in a friendly, jesting kind of way. Children don't always manage to translate that properly."
This raises the issue of whether it's the name-calling that is a problem or the way in which it is done. A friend talks of seeing a mother growl 'you stupid boy' into her little son's face because he had wet himself which breaks my heart. To me that's a nasty reaction to a perfectly normal childish accident. I also think it's completely different to giggling 'oh, don't worry, you big lummox'.
I also think that kids are brilliant at picking up signals from their parents' faces and actions, which means that they take cues from much more than just words. I can chastise my daughter just by giving her 'the look' and I rarely name-call when telling her off because my eyes and tone do all of the work for me.
Actually, the fact that I call her a name means I'm in a good mood, simply because I've still got the humour and strength to conjure up a moniker.
Which means that my use of words like 'idiot' and 'tit' will continue unabated. Right now those names are a huge source of humour and laughter in your house and as long as that is the case my daughter will sometimes be a 'dilbert', occasionally an 'idiot' but always my 'angel'.
What do you think? Let us know...
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