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Why I’m Happy My 8-Year-Old Son Called Me a Butthead

July 22, 2015

It’s true. My son called me a butthead and I couldn’t be happier.

Not long ago we bought an iPad. For some time I had been hesitating to get one, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to control its use in the family well and that it might become a negative influence on my kids. Like their father, they have addictive personalities. :mrgreen:

But overall, it’s proving to have a mostly positive impact. I now use it regularly to write on the go, like a laptop, and I’ve been pretty cautious about the kinds of apps I download to it, seeking out those that can help stretch their minority language.

I also established the rule that they can only use the iPad if they’ve completed their other tasks for the day, and only for 30 minutes.

Fractured finger

But in late June my 8-year-old son fractured the middle finger of his left hand, playing dodgeball, and I felt bad for him. The poor boy loves soccer and participates in a soccer club on Fridays, but now he was sidelined for a whole month, with a big bandage on his hand.

So I downloaded a soccer app for him, a fun little game called Soccer Physics, hoping that this would help cheer him up during this downtime. (Try it, it’s an amusing game, and requires no special language skill to play.)

And he loves it. In fact, this is the only app he uses these days. But the truth is, I think this choice has been too engaging because not only does the game lack the educational value of the other apps, he regularly gets upset when I tell him his 30 minutes are up and it’s time to stop.

This happened again the other day, and though usually I’m less than pleased by these incidents, something more occurred this time, something that, when I paused to think about it, was a clear reflection of the success I’ve experienced with my kids when it comes to the minority language.

“Just one more game”

Let me set the scene.

It’s evening, and Roy is playing Soccer Physics at a low wooden table in my home office, which doubles as the room I use to tutor other bilingual children on afternoons and weekends. Next to the iPad is a large heap of letter tiles, from Scrabble, that I used with a student earlier that day. Roy’s time with the iPad is up, but he persistently pleads to play “just one more game.” (Each game only lasts a couple of minutes.)

ME: Roy, it’s time to stop and take a bath.

ROY (eyes glued to the iPad as he feverishly taps a large blue button which controls his team): I know. I’m almost finished.

ME: You need to stop now.

ROY: Just let me finish this game.

ME: You said that the last game. But then you started a new one.

ROY: I have to win.

ME: No, you don’t have to win. You have to stop.

ROY: Oh, come on, I lost again!

ME: Okay, now turn it off.

ROY (starting another new game): Just one more game!

ME: No!

ROY: This is the last one!

ME: Roy—

ROY: The very last one!

ME (sighing): Win or lose, buddy, this is the last game.

“Go take a bath”

When Roy lost that game, too, and was set to start right in again, I grabbed the iPad and turned it off myself. “Go take a bath,” I told him.

My son, though, just sat there stewing at me, arms folded across his chest. Then, as his gaze fell on the letter tiles, there on the table, he reached out and began picking through them.

As I watched, he silently formed this word, then neatly angled it in my direction…

DUMB

Then he made another…

STUPID

And finally, for the coup de grâce, he spelled out…

BUTTHEAD

I could only smile

Now let me stress that I don’t normally condone name-calling from my children. I mean, they don’t often call me names, anyway, but usually I express displeasure at this sort of behavior. But this time, well, I was struck by a different thought instead: Look at that! He may have called me a dumb, stupid butthead, but he spelled it all correctly, didn’t he? Good for him! This is actually a positive sign of his language development.

So, rather than scold him, I could only smile, because the very fact that my son has developed the capacity to label me a butthead in this way is happy evidence that my ambitions for him are being realized. No, I won’t be pleased if he now makes a daily habit of calling me a butthead, but in this instance, it’s true, I was happy to be one.

For an amusing interview with Roy, see…

VIDEO: With Bilingual Kids, There’s a Madness to My Method

For more tips on turning negatives into positives, see…

How Fighting Like Furious Monkeys Can Benefit Your Bilingual Kids

How about you? Have your children ever called you names or made other outbursts in the minority language? What happened?

1 Mayken July 23, 2015 at 11:15 pm

Love your logic here, Adam!

I think it’s pretty cool (but don’t tell him that!) that your son took the letters to spell out the insult instead of saying it out loud (which he probably didn’t dare?) or mumbling it under his breath or whatever. Ingenious.

But being a parent, I hope you still sent him straight to his bath and indicated in some way your disapproval despite the correct spelling.

Cheers, Mayken

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2 Adam July 24, 2015 at 6:10 am

Mayken, in general, I accept a certain amount of such “misbehavior”—since it’s rather mild, really—without much more than a disapproving look. Because they’re basically good kids, and understand when they’re pushing it, I tend to reserve my tougher responses for times when they cross the line. (Interesting story: In Japanese, the expression “Die!” isn’t an uncommon, or particularly harsh, verbal comeback from one child to another. But when my son said this in English to my daughter, which sounds so much more terrible in this language, I lost it and scolded him severely. After my wife explained that the nuance isn’t so nasty in Japanese, I felt kind of bad for him—like I had overreacted—since, of course, he was just “innocently” translating from one language to the other!)

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3 Laura July 27, 2015 at 10:56 am

OK, so can you tell me HOW you do spelling in the minority language with your kids? Especially since English spelling is so crazy!!! How on earth have your kids learned that? And yes, I am aware of your homework routine but how much spelling does that include and how exactly do you teach it? My son’s MAJORITY language is English and I bet he would misspell every single one of those words…

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4 Adam July 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Laura, I think a strong sense of spelling is basically a combination of two factors: the child’s personality (how precise a thinker, naturally) and the amount of exposure to written text (how much the child reads, with and without the parent).

In my son’s case, he fulfills both factors well: he’s a precise little thinker and he reads a lot in English. And so he’s developing pretty accurate spelling.

On the other hand, my daughter is somewhat weak in both areas: Lulu isn’t naturally a precise thinker and she isn’t moved to read in English as much as Roy…which translates into a poorer sense of spelling. In fact, because I’ve gotten a bit frustrated with her spelling, I recently ordered a spelling workbook for her (Spectrum Spelling, Grade 4) in the hope that daily practice will help focus her attention on this aspect of her language ability.

I think, though, such “teacherly” approaches aren’t really necessary when the child reads a lot (whatever their personality, for the most part), because ample exposure to examples of standard English will quite naturally result in satisfactory spelling. Simply, good readers tend to be good spellers. (Because those who read more generally have stronger language ability in all respects, my top priority is encouraging greater amounts of reading.)

At the same time, I would recommend making word games a part of your lifestyle, too. I play such games regularly with my kids and students, and I think these experiences can also strengthen a child’s sense of the target language.

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