You may be surprised to know that the most verbally abusive person in my life is my three year old. Or, perhaps, if you are a parent, you are not surprised.
Aside from disclaiming me as her friend whenever she’s resentful of my authority, Ziya also has suddenly begun to articulate, with American Psycho meets Voldemort darkness, all the ways she can think of maiming me.
‘I will hit you on your head with a tree’, she threatens. ‘I will push you and make you fall down and get hurt’, she promises. ‘I will mash up your face’, she swears, channeling The Godfather. At this point, I began to get concerned.
She was always physically assertive, wrestling me in the nights when she wanted to fall asleep breastfeeding and I was pushing her off, flinging both legs and arms like a Tasmanian Devil in infrequent though full-scale two year old tantrums, lashing out when she was vex at her dad or me and then having to apologize for hitting.
That’s average, if annoying. What’s terrifying is when her little brain starts to use her expanding vocabulary to imagine and detail infliction of harm and pain to assert dominance, exact revenge or register resistance.
Stone and I never throw words at each other. In fourteen years, he’s never insulted or become angry enough to say mean things to me, and vice versa. We don’t put each other down and we don’t put Ziya down. We also censor Ziya’s television consumption, precisely because of its violent content and overall unhealthy transmission of values about gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, capitalism and so on. Between Dora, Dinosaur Train, Martha the talking dog, Curious George, Word World and the Wild Kratts with their focus on animals and ecology, where did Ziya learn to negotiate relationships by being so vocally vicious?
During play, at school.
Since she’s started school, her conversational give and take, her social skills or lack of them, and her handling of conflict and power have had to step up. It’s at home that she re-enacts newly encountered situations and tests newly acquired skills. She hasn’t yet figured out, or maybe she has, that there are certain things you should not say and certain things you only say to your friends at school. It’s hard to tell if she doesn’t understand correct boundaries or is deliberately pushing them. As we all know, three year olds are wily creatures capable of sophisticated plotting when they have a point to make.
I don’t know if it’s like this across the country, but it shows how emotional, verbal or physical violence becomes part of peer culture. They’ve been learning to pelt it out since preschool. Maybe it’s the historical role of domination in founding our society, and the fighting words and relations that it has made unnoticeable and accepted. Maybe it’s that we see playgrounds as idyllic spheres of innocence and joy, so schools and families don’t treat such learning outcomes as serious, and don’t seriously and collectively try to transform our children’s investments in violence. Can parents, principals and psychologists cooperate to make playgrounds places where abusive talk isn’t fine-tuned everyday?
I tell Zi that mean words hurt feelings. We discuss how she feels hurt when threatened in those ways. I tell her not to respond when she’s on the receiving end and to say sorry when it’s her.
It’s a developmental stage, but it’s also a warning sign about the world our children will create. What can we do while they are still our fledglings to change such fate?