Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

A Guide To Anger, Conflict and Respect


For the past few weeks we have been discussing how to deal with criticism.  As I have noted, because criticism is often accompanied by name calling, insults, threats, and even violence, it can be very hard to handle.  Even when criticism is provided in a more supportive manner, threats to our desires to be liked and to be free to do whatever we want can arise, bringing with them feelings of frustration, defensiveness and anger (see post titled WHY IS CRITICISM SO HARD TO BEAR?).

Because these feeling can be so very strong, simply reading about mature ways to respond to criticism, although oftentimes helpful, is not enough to become a master at dealing with criticism.  I have therefore been encouraging exercises that lead us to practice the skills sufficiently so that they become so second-nature to us that even in the most stressful situations we can expertly carry them out.  One of the best ways to practice these skills is to teach them to children.

Teaching Children to Handle Criticism

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

You notice your five-year old is not making his “B” correctly.  “That’s not quite right,” you say.  “Here, watch me.”

As you begin to demonstrate, your child becomes defensive, crumbles up the paper, and shouts, “I hate you!  I hate you!  I hate you.”

“How dare you speak that way to me!” you respond.  And the conflict escalates from here.

A parent is often confronted with what William James liked to call the “balky will.”  Certain children, if they do not succeed immediately in doing something just right and are then criticized, flare up in anger and refuse to cooperate.  Such children are oftentimes treated as sinful and are punished; or else the parent pits his or her will against the child’s will.

John Wesley

John Wesley

William James

William James

Some have argued that children should be forced to do as they are told, even if one has to whip them ten times running.  “Break its will, in order that his soul may live!” exclaimed John Wesley, an eighteenth century theologian.  But William James disagreed.  “Such will breaking is always a scene with a great deal of nervous wear and tear on both sides, a bad state of feeling left behind it, and the victory not always with the would-be will breaker.”

When a situation of this kind occurs, and the child is all tense and excited, James believed that it is best to drop the subject for awhile.  Direct the child’s mind to something else, and then, a little later on, bring it up again.  As likely as not, the child will go over it now without any difficulty.

“It is in no other way that we overcome balkiness in a horse,” said James.  “We divert his attention, do something to his nose or ear, lead him around in a circle, and thus get him over a place where flogging would only have made him more invincible.”

Of course, nothing works perfectly all the time, and this technique is no exception.  I have found that I can greatly increase the success rate of James’s approach by playing a game with children called “Criticism.”  It can be played during car rides, walks in the neighborhood, and waiting for the food to come in a restaurant.  To teach your children the game you first have to go over the first four levels of responding to criticism (see post titled RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: FOUR LEVELS OF MATURITY).  It’s important to tell the children first not to worry if they remember everything you are about to tell them because once you start to play, they will catch on before long.

To introduce this game, I like to use the Peanuts comic that has Charlie Brown criticizing Sally’s swirls and Sally getting defensive.

In this comic, when Sally hears Charlie Brown’s criticism of her swirls, it’s not long before Snoopy’s shades are sent flying.

Once you explain what criticism is and then go over the four levels of responding to criticism, you describe a situation in which Charlie criticizes Sally and Sally responds.  Then the child guesses what level Sally’s response was at.  So, in addition to the example depicted in the above comic, I could say, “Charlie says to Sally, ‘Those sneakers you’re wearing are ugly.’  Sally responds by saying, ‘Oh yeah?!  Well what do you know about sneakers?  You’re the worst dresser around here, you jerk!’  What level is Sally at?”

After you discuss the child’s answer, then role-play with the child the situation so that you provide the criticism and the child acts out a level four response.  If the child fails to do this correctly, reverse the roles by having the child criticize you and you provide the level four response.  Then let the child try to imitate your level four response.

I have found that kids, rather quickly, get a thorough understanding of the four levels by playing this game.  Once they do, during a typical day I catch them responding to criticism.  When I do, I ask them to rate the level of their response.  I also try to catch them using a level four response, and then I play up like it’s a big deal that such a young kid can be so mature.

One way to come up with fun descriptions of a character being criticized and another character responding, is to cut out newspaper comics that depict these kinds of scenarios.

Or you can go to the website and view many of the comics kids of all ages love, and print out ones that nicely illustrate someone being criticized.

In addition to James’s approach of dropping the subject for awhile and my approach of playing the “Criticism” game, there is one more crucial point I shall make here about teaching children to handle criticism.  Children are very dependent on their parents.  There is a theory that in the back of the minds of children they are aware of their dependence.  They somehow realize that without their parent’s support they would be in big trouble and this is associated with anxiety and even terror.  Each time children are criticized by their parents, it brings this fear to the fore of their thoughts, and they can only take so much of it without attempting to banish this fear, either by running away, dreaming magical thoughts, or screaming to drown out the feeling of terror.  As a rule of thumb, parents would be wise to say at least ten supportive comments for every one negative critical comment that they make.  And if more than two or three negative criticisms have been made in a single day, perhaps it would be wise to put off the next one until the morrow.

Be patient then, and don’t be afraid to drop a subject until a more suitable time.  This will make you, not weaker, but a stronger parent.  During fun times, teach your children how you expect them to act when criticized.  Be on guard against too much negative criticism all at once.  And above all, let your children know you love them.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


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  1. Pingback: “BULLY” AND BEYOND | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

  2. thank you Jeffery. I have felt that ‘balky will’ before in my life and your comments are on target.

  3. I appreciate you comment, Judy.

  4. Pingback: Psychiatric Name Calling: Are the Insurance Companies to Blame? | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

  5. Pingback: ADHD and the Wisdom of William James | Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

  6. Pingback: ADHD and the Wisdom of William James | From Insults To Respect

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