Q: My daughter calls her brother stupid and he feels hurt. He does the same in return. I tried everything, but neither of them will stop. How do I teach them to stop hurting each other and to use proper language?

A: At a family counseling in my home, a girl called her sister “stupid.” Both girls then engaged in yelling at each other, “you are stupid,” and were getting very upset. I then announced, “Me too. I am stupid.” They looked at me and started laughing, relieving their own stress. I continued cheerfully and with rhythm, “I am stupid, Dad is stupid, Mom is stupid too, Grandma is stupid, Beethoven was stupid, the neighbor is stupid…” Then I shared my own stupid moments and the upset turned into laughter. The children got so excited that they started telling about their own stupid moments.

Two weeks later, the mother called to tell me that her older daughter said, “I can’t call her [sister] stupid anymore. It doesn’t work. She doesn’t get hurt.” To the mother’s surprise, the result was not a new vocabulary of harsh words but a greater connection between the girls.

If you tell your child that her words hurt another, she is learning to feel hurt by these same words when spoken to her. In addition, she absorbs a few other unhelpful concepts like: You cannot handle it if someone reveals your imperfections; be perfect; defend yourself; pretend to be flawless; the truth hurts; live by what others say; words can be used for punishing another; I have power over others; others have power over me; I am responsible for the emotions of another.

The result is people whose sense of worth is shaky; it depends on what others say about them and they are driven to defend a position, causing difficult relationships. Teaching kindness is not about raising emotionally dependent adults but about having compassion toward each other when we speak from our pain.

Powerful people are those whose sense of value comes from within; their confidence is unshakable by the pronouncements of others. Such people are more kind and caring because they have no axe to grind; being secure in their own values, they can fully notice and care about the feelings and needs of others.

Doesn’t the Child Need to Use Better Words?

Did your child need to walk when born or stop breastfeeding before she did? She will learn our linguistic codes, not by being told what to say or to imply that her words have power over others. She will learn by experiencing kindness (even to the one speaking unkindly) and by being at peace with herself.

Put-downs are an expression of insecurity and self-doubt. Ideally, we want a child to feel so great about herself that she has no need to affirm her value by diminishing another and is not threatened by what is spoken about her. This is often not the case, because we have already taught our children to be hurt by certain words and we have modeled this idea ourselves. We teach it when we say things like, “It makes me feel…,” “You hurt my feelings,” or “Did I hurt your feelings?” “She made me angry,” etc. Such pronouncements imply, “My feelings depend on others and on circumstances outside of myself.” The child learns that his emotions are like leaves blown in the wind by other people’s words and actions.

Help your children look for their own value inside themselves, and model being responsible for your own emotions.

It is the child who is demeaning who needs compassion. You can say, “I see that you have strong feelings about your brother. Would you like to tell me more about it?” You can listen to her and then to your son without taking sides or making judgments. This is the way you model unconditional kindness and connection. Happiness that depends on the words of others is a total dependency. Teach your child to derive her strength from the inside, and no outside comment will shake her.