Here in Mexico I call my kid names. I insult him and bully him and tell him he's too skinny. When he throws a tantrum I call him a crybaby. Troublemaker. Annoying. Noisemaker. Frog legs. Son of your mother.

But hold on. Don't call the bad mommy police just yet.

It occurred to me the other day just how innappropriate this name-calling is in the culture I grew up in. In fact, it would even seem by some standards that I'm contributing to the bullying epidemic that is hurting so many kids. And that's the last thing I want to do. So it's interesting to me that I've adopted this habit of name-calling with José.

I can't remember when I first started participating in this strangely Mexican habit. I imagine it was sometime after José was born when I was especially attuned to the mannerisms that my fabulous mother-in-law used with him. I vaguely remember feeling surprised and a little uncomfortable about hearing him called “crybaby,” for example, precisely because of how innappropriate this is from my cultural perspective. Over time, however, I also started paying attention to the tone of voice and facial expressions that accompanied these names and realized that the words were actually being said with love and affection. For a while it still seemed a strange way to show a child that you care for him but I came to accept that it was something normal and acceptable in my husband's family. I suppose over time I went from accepting to embracing this custom because now I don't hesitate to call José an annoying kid or a troublemaker.

This phenomenon also carries over to physical attributes. For example, when I'm helping José change his clothes, I'll sometimes call him “frog leggs” or “skinny boy.” The difference between the examples I've given and what we would call bullying is the fact that the names are used between people who obviously care about each other. It would definitely be unacceptable here to use these names with other people's children unless you have long-standing or intimate ties to them. You won't hear me using these names even with my nieces and nephews because I'm a relatively new addition to the family. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, frequently calls my littlest niece (who happens to have big lungs and uses them frequently and for extended periods) a crybaby.

It's hard to describe the feeling I have when I'm using these words. I guess I could say that it feels like a healthy way of coping with some of the qualities in children that make them children by naming those attributes in a loving way. Because let's face it, kids will keep us busy by asking for help with this and that until we realize that it's taken two hours to wash two dinner plates. That could be called annoying. Or when the kid can't seem to keep his hands off all the things he knows he's not supposed to play with. That could be called being a troublemaker. Or when the kid who's usually tough as nails starts crying for no apparent reason. Maybe he's being a crybaby. The great thing about using these names in Mexico is that I've learned to use them only with much affection, smiling, and hugging. Because after all, if I couldn't smile about all the mischief and tantruming that goes on around here, then I'd be a pretty big mess. The closest comparison I can think of in my other culture would be baby talk. Imagine, for example, that you're holding a beautiful little bundle of newbornness and you croon, “You're such a little cutie” in your best baby talk voice. Now substitute cutie for one of my choice names without changing the tone of your voice. That's kind of what this name-calling culture is like.

This name-calling isn't limited just to children. But that's a whole different blog post. For now you can rest assured that when I call José a troublemaker to his face in Spanish, it's because he is the most charming, loveable, squeezy-cheeked troublemaker I know.

And now because I'm a hopeless nerd and because the teacher in me just can't resist, here is a little Spanish vocabulary matching game for you:

Which words go with which picture? (have fun all you fellow nerds)

troublemaker, frog legs, crybaby, skinny, noisemaker, annoying

1.

patas de rana

 

2.

travieso

3.
chillón

 

4.

latoso

 

5.

gritón
6.
flacuchis (or flaco)

 

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