Childhood Education

Sticks and Stones

Tufts professor starts project to help kids cope with name-calling

In the early grades, schoolchildren giggle when they hear certain words. "The lyric 'oh so gay' can make children laugh, and the children aren't quite sure why they're uncomfortable with the word," said Calvin Gidney, associate professor of child development. "By fourth to sixth grade," Gidney said, "they have a clearer understanding of what words mean and understand there can be two meanings to a word. Between fourth and eighth grade, there's a rise in name-calling as youngsters start to be aware of their own sexuality."

Gidney wants to help children understand the harm that can be done by name-calling and to offer tools and strategies to children who are teased. He has received a grant from the Cambridge-based Schott Foundation that he will use this fall to help develop a middle school curriculum about name-calling. The curriculum will focus particularly on racist and homophobic name-calling. The ultimate aim is to foster a school climate where name-calling is unacceptable.

"Name-calling is really a mental health issue," he said. "I think that a child or any individual who feels beleaguered at school, who is tormented in school, is a child who cannot produce in school. "I'd also point out, to take it to the extreme case, that the children who went on those shooting rampages in school said they had been victims of name-calling and persistent teasing."

But the harm isn't done just to those who are singled out for teasing. Children who bully others may begin to develop prejudicial feelings, so that what starts out as something childish, becomes entrenched in their thoughts and behavior. The name-callers, said Gidney, begin to internalize attitudes when they tease.

"It's important in terms of setting up prejudices. Kids may not realize what the words mean, but by the time they do, they already know it's 'bad.' "

Gidney's grant will allow him to work with the principal, teachers and students at the Tobin Middle School in Cambridge, where he will hold a series of meetings with students. The meetings will be taped, and the material will be analyzed. Assisting Gidney will be Tufts undergraduates, who will participate in the interviews with middle-schoolers, learning when name-calling is done, what names are used and who does the name-calling. In the late fall, Gidney and the staff at the school will meet to develop a curriculum that will give children sets of appropriate responses to name-calling.

"We will help develop the attribute of courage so that children will intervene when someone else is called a name," he said. "Kids are afraid to intervene because they fear they will be the next target. "We want them to think about feelings but also [about] meanings of words and how the words enforce certain ideas about race and gender. Think about what it means to call a girl a 'bitch.' Maybe she's assertive. Is it wrong for a girl to behave that way?" Gidney said he views his work in the Cambridge middle school as a pilot project and hopes to expand it to other communities. - Margery Howard







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