on paernting 0906 (Washington Post Illustration/Prisma Filter/iStock image)

Q: My son just turned 4, and I'm concerned because he doesn't seem very kind. He ostracizes the less "popular" kids in preschool. He says mean things to his cousins and playmates (you're stupid, you're ugly, I'm smarter than you). None of this is constant; most of these examples are little things I've witnessed over the past few months. I know he's only 4, but I've read that a person's personality is pretty much set in stone by their fifth birthday, and I'm feeling the pressure to turn my son around before it's too late. I don't want to lead him down a path of unkindness and selfishness. Should I be worried?

A: It is so worrying to watch your child be unkind to others, and trust me, you are not alone. I cannot wipe away your worry with an “Oh, this is so normal,” nor do I want to, but I do want to assure you that children (especially 4-year-olds) can be extraordinarily insecure, self-centered and mean. This does not guarantee your son a life of “unkindness and selfishness,” but there are actions we can take to help him mature in a way that is a little less “you’re stupid” and a little more kind.

Why is a child unkind? When it comes to name-calling and comparisons, this is a sign of insecurity and a need to one-up the children around him. For whatever reason, your son is seeing his cousins and playmates as threats to his power, and because he has language at his disposal, he doesn’t need to hit or kick or bite; he can just beat them down with an insult. Remember: The hitting and kicking you may have seen when he was younger was a manifestation of frustration. We are now seeing frustration in the form of insults and put-downs.

As a parenting coach, I get more calls and complaints about ­
4-year-olds than any other age. Because they are growing rapidly and their language is picking up quickly, they can appear more emotionally mature than they actually are. A 4-year-old may be able to access his feeling words and some mature thoughts, but his brain is easily flipped into pure emotion, triggered by unconscious thoughts. How does this happen?

So, your little one is playing with his cousin and everything is going well. Then, your nephew is able to climb a steep rock wall, but this rock wall scares your son. Rationally, this is not a big deal, but in his unconscious mind, only one person has the power and that person is his cousin. This is threatening, and he blurts: “You’re stupid.” The important aspect of this example is that your son is being motivated by unconscious desires; he is not planning to be mean. In fact, if you ask him, “Why would call Gary stupid?” your son would not have an answer. He doesn’t know why he is calling people names; he is simply reacting to deep, emotional impulses that come from a place in him that feels threatened. I know most parents want to believe their preschoolers are craftier than this, but they aren’t.

I also know it doesn’t make any sense to assume your child is “set in stone” by age 5. If that doesn’t panic a parent, I don’t know what will! But scientists are showing how neuroplastic the brain truly is — far more than we ever guessed. Furthermore, this fixed mind-set is going to do absolutely nothing for your parenting. It is too much pressure, and this kind of stress rarely leads to rational and kind decisions.

What can you do? Let’s keep it simple.

When little Larry is unkind to Gary, you pick up Larry and say sternly, “Nope, we are not speaking like that to Gary.” You leave the space as best you can and say, “I see you’re frustrated that Gary climbed the wall, and we are not going to call him stupid.” And then you wait. Your son may throw a fit, and that is fine. His tantrum with you? Acceptable. Calling children names? Not acceptable.

Removing Larry from the situation is also going to require staying closer to him than you may be used to, so that you can watch for mounting anger or frustration. If you begin to see what triggers your son, you can jump in by helping him up the wall, taking him by the hand to another activity or quietly chatting with him.

Your demeanor is crucial when you lead your son away from the infraction. You are not lecturing, punishing, chastising or shaming your son as you do this. Nor are you trying to get him to talk it out, which is not developmentally appropriate for most 4-year-olds. Instead, you are trying to break up the dynamic . It says to him, “Mom or Dad will not permit this to continue.” If you give him another chance to play and he does it again, sit him down or, if possible, leave the scene. No parent wants to do this. But if you calmly and firmly leave a party when your son calls someone stupid, he will quickly correlate name-calling to leaving (and hopefully, will begin to slow this habit down).

Two caveats: First, if you lecture, yell, threaten or force him to insincerely apologize to the offended (as the parent, you can apologize on your son’s behalf), his behavior will worsen, not improve. Remember, he didn’t mean to be mean, so it doesn’t make sense to hold him responsible for something he isn’t mature enough to control. These tactics will only make him resentful, and become meaner and meaner. Second, as emotions smooth out, you can say things such as, “We will try again tomorrow. Instead of calling Gary stupid, we are going to say, ‘I want to climb the wall, too!’ and Mommy will come help you!” This may sound silly, but assuming the best in your child and making a plan for the next positive interaction sets a loving and hopeful tone. I mean, he’s 4. His life is nothing but a series of “let’s try again” circumstances.

Do your best to label him as a kind and loving boy. If parents don’t believe in their own child, it is difficult for a child to find his best intentions.

To help, read Dan Siegel’s books for parenting and search online for “books for kids who are frustrated” to find a great list of options for you to read with your son. (I especially like this list.) Good luck.