As kids get older, the rough and tumble, hit and punch days of preschool abate (until the teenage years, I guess) and give way to more sophisticated forms of torture: taunting, teasing and name-calling.
My children are certainly not immune to this. At present they are constantly accusing one another of "being rude"; there's a lot of forced, fake taunting laughter which drives the other one to tears, and some pretty annoying name calling ("poo", as you'd imagine, features heavily on the playlist at this age. For instance "poo-bum", "poo-face", "poo-poo"). While it drives both of them to distraction, it has the added effect of making me want to hurl myself off the nearest double-decker bus.
But I can report with no small pride that the other day my son, for all his tendency to light the fuse and fan the flames at home, did something out of home that made me really proud. He was at his martial arts class, being bellowed at in Chinese and made to do 50 kicks in a row, when a boy in his class who was on the overweight side fell over.
Many of the kids laughed and teased the boy, but my son didn't, saying that it was "mean" to call him "fatty" like the others were.
Ok, now this is my son telling the story, but I happen to believe him, and this is why: Once upon a time I rammed it home to him that it was never, ever ok to call someone fat. He had run up to a girl in the park (he was much younger then, perhaps three or four) and had said to a girl, without malice, but just as a statement of fact: "You're fat." It was awful to see this girl's face crumple into despair.
I felt so bad for her because I was a fat child and an even fatter adolescent, when it becomes truly painful to be chubby, and I know how devastating those words, however true they are, can be.
"You can never call anyone fat, especially not a girl," I had said to my son after removing him from the scene and apologising to the girl. "Why not?" he asked, genuinely curious. "It's just not nice," I said, stumped as to how to explain it further. I feel part of the job of a parent is to try and socialise your children, and so calling someone fat can not really ever be the right thing to do in polite society. Even if it is adults, rather than children, that necessarily attach a negative meaning to that word.
Worse was to come. Several years later and my daughter is on a swing in a park, swinging away while a Polynesian family played nearby. "I don't like the dark skinned ones," she bellows. "I like white, quiet skin." A few more comments in that vein followed. We tried to point out that all skins were the same - while also getting her to turn down the dial on that foghorn of a voice. It was a particularly baffling thing to say, in particular as her father, who she adores, has brown skin, as has her beloved grandfather. She herself has an olive complexion - far from peaches and cream (or my pasty white). She has friends of all different races and complexions (she is only three, might I add) and has never displayed an aversion to any group of people, so I hope it was just the nonsensical ramblings of a preschooler rather than anything else.
But before people say my attention to these incidents is "PC gone mad", I would say this: the subtle messages in our wider culture are pervasive and almost subconscious to an extent - but they are strong enough for young children to pick up on. Certainly being fat is openly derided and portrayed negatively - just watch any cartoon aimed at young kids if you don't believe it. The race thing must surely be a little more subtle, but is still there - for most little girls for example, a princess is blonde haired and blue eyed, and nothing else (despite the efforts of Disney to have one Asian princess, one Native American, one Middle Eastern, one African American and so forth).
It's a tricky area for a parent and one where glib explanations "just because!" and "because I said so!" usually won't cut the mustard, unfortunately. So thought has to go into it. It almost makes me yearn for the very early days of talking, when the worst that could happen was a choice expletive during a moment of otherwise genteel silence.