Name Calling in Pre-K

Politically Correct in the Pre-K?

How do we talk to our daughter about racial slurs?

by Rebecca Odes & Ceridwen Morris

December 2, 2009



My four-year-old daughter told me that she was put in time out at school today because she was calling one of her classmates a “monkey.” The classmate is black. Teasing and name calling among four-year-olds is pretty normal, so how do I explain to my daughter why she was punished in this particular instance? Should she have been punished for this since other name calling is tolerated? How do I talk to a four-year-old about racism and prejudice and why certain words are especially insulting to certain people?

PC in the PK

Dear PC,

Ah, the unwitting faux pas of the young. Your daughter is way too little to understand the complex interplay of racial, cultural and social meanings attached to the word monkey. To her, calling a kid monkey is probably no different than calling a kid platypus. Maybe, she, like us, has heard parents calling their kids monkey as a term of endearment. She doesn’t have any context. The way we evaluate this incident has to take that into account: It’s not like she’s a political cartoonist or famous sports announcer.

We can understand how a teacher might feel compelled to react strongly to a name with such negative associations. But punishing a kid for something she doesn’t understand is pretty much useless. What’s more confusing is why the school will allow name calling of some kinds and not others.

At four, your daughter’s capacity for empathy is somewhat limited. This is the age at which kids usually start to cement their association between their words and actions and other people’s feelings, but it will be a while before she can make that connection quickly enough to avoid doing things that make others upset. (We’re still working on this ourselves with older kids.) It’s much easier to get that hitting or biting someone is not okay than to decipher the code of offensive and inoffensive language.

What seems to work well for young children is a general approach: If name calling happens, remind your daughter that often people don’t like to be called things other than their name. Since it’s hard to know what names will hurt people’s feelings, it’s best to call other people by their real names. This is the way we’ve seen this handled in our kids’ schools, and it makes a lot of sense to us.

Although your daughter is too young to fully grasp the idea of racial prejudice, you can certainly begin the discussion about race. You will want to start with a positive approach, helping her see how everyone’s different, and how skin color is one way people differ visibly. The important thing is that you’re instilling a respect for difference. The latest research indicates that our kids are very much inherently interested in differences in skin color. And that it’s important for us to address this, not to encourage “color blindness” or avoid the discussion. Research indicates that if children are left to work out racial differences on their own, they tend to develop more exclusionary practices.

As your daughter gets older you can start a dialogue about real discrimination and prejudice. Eventually you can even talk about the semiotics of monkey – it’s obviously very complex, but thanks in part to the aforementioned sports announcer and cartoonist, there is ample literature out there to help her parse the controversy.

Have a question? Email

Find more:

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Is my child racist?

Parents sue to keep kids from having to be nice.

This article was written by Rebecca Odes and Ceridwen Morris for, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.


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