Are Kids Silly?

Silly. This word has been on my mind a lot lately. A friend of mine brought it up when she witnessed someone call her child “silly” after deciding to sit on the ground next to the car at carpool. Her child wasn’t being “silly” at all; she was actually having a difficult time, feeling tired and overwhelmed, and was in need of  some empathy and help. Ever since my friend’s story I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the word “silly” and how it’s used. I’ve also become very cognizant of my own use of the word “silly”, and I’ve paid attention to how my daughter uses the word too. We’ve had some interesting converstions about the word “silly” over the past couple of weeks. Here’s a few bits of these conversations:

Me: “what does ‘silly’ mean?”
Daughter: “it’s when you do something to make someone laugh.”

Me: “what does it mean when someone says, ‘you’re so silly’?”
Daughter: “it means you’re being funny, even when they don’t want you to.”

Me: “do you like to be silly?”
Daughter: “Mhmm. I like to have fun.”

Me: “what do you think of being ‘silly’?”
Daughter: “it’s okay. sometimes it’s fun to be silly.”

…and most recently, “mom, this is silly” (makes a funny face and noise), “you try it” (she pauses while I do my best imitation). “no, that’s not silly. you don’t know how to be silly.” Oh, ok. LOL

And then I wondered, “what is it about this word that has my attention?” Of course, the obvious part was in my friend’s story: sometimes we ignore what’s really going on with children, and just call their behavior “silly.” Usually this happens when we’re tired or distracted. It might feel like a playful way to acknowledge our children’s behavior; an attempt to acknowledge them and avoid being critical, demanding, or derisive. I’ve been there. I get that.

But what does my child “get” when I call her behavior “silly”?

For Example:

My daugher comes running into the room where the adults are talking with a skirt on her head, mismatched socks and performs her own little jig while singing her favorite song (this really happened while we were visiting Grandma in KY).

She’s displaying creativity, sponteneity, and playful energy; she’s looking to connect, entertain, bring out smiles and engage with us…and she succeeds! We laugh, connect, and have fun together. But how would this scenario play out if I responded by saying, “you’re so silly”? Maybe nothing. Except she begins to label these gifts as silly – all this creativity, sponteneity, playfulness, connection, engagement, it all gets labeled as silly. And if I REALLY think about it, the term “silly” would really be just a way to brush her off. It would stifle the connection and engagement. It would create distance.

I understand how the term “silly” can also be very benign and even create connection. Last night a friend of mine came over for dinner with her daughter. After dinner my friend said, “it’s ok to be silly here. Let’s be silly!” And so the girls made funny faces and noises, they jumped and squealed and laughed. We all felt very connected and engaged with each other. So what’s the difference?

The difference is the meaning or intention behind the word. And this is where it gets dicey. How an adult interprets language can be very different from how a child interprets language. For that matter, adults miscommunicate with each other all the time! So language IS very important. So here’s some things I try to keep in mind when I choose the language I use (which isn’t to say I don’t screw up…good grief do I):

How would I feel if someone called me silly right now?
Would I feel accepted or rejected?
Would I feel acknowledged or dismissed?
Would I feel valued or unimportant?
When I really think about it, how would I feel if I came in to show someone something and they said, “you’re so silly”? I’d probably have lots of feelings: confused, angry, belittled, misunderstood, etc. (feel free to use the comments section to help me out here!)

I know lots of loving, beautiful, amazing people…teachers, therapists, childcare workers, friends, myself, etc. who casually use the term “silly.”

“You’re so silly”
“That’s so silly”
“Don’t be silly”
“Isn’t she silly”
“Why are you so silly”
So I began to ask myself WHY these phrases come up, and the conclusion I came to is this: we get tired and we have our own needs. Parenting, teaching, guiding, and caring for someone else who is learning to navigate the world around them can be exhausting. And sometimes we see a behavior we don’t like or are too tired to understand, so we simply call it “silly.” But I want to be mindful of my language and interaction even when I’m tired. So I came up with some alternate ways to engage when our minds are tired. Ways that are more respectful of children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; ways that may even help us recognize what they’re really trying to say to us, but at least don’t devalue their gifts.
You are making faces and laughing.
You sat on the ground.
That noise made me laugh.
You are laughing and pointing.
I see you put that on your head.
I see you have paint on your face.
I hear a noise that’s different.
I think you’re trying to tell me something.
Are you speaking in a different language?
Did you make up a new language?
You’re blowing air over your tongue
You have so much energy
You are very excited
Wow, look at that
The difference is that there’s no labeling of the behavior. We are simply noticing it without placing a judgment on it. We are naming what it is we see without making it positive or negative. We are letting our child know we see them and we continue to accept them and the myriad of behaviors they engage in to express their beautiful individuality and gifts.
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3 thoughts on “Are Kids Silly?”

  1. Thank you for this post. Long ago, before I had my son, I used to tell a friend’s child that she was silly. I meant it in a fun way, but looking back I see that it really sounded incredibly dismissive and condescending. One day she told me, “YOU are silly.” It suddenly struck me that being labeled silly really doesn’t make me feel good, and must not make her feel good either. I instantly felt deep regret for speaking to her that way. Now that I have my own child, I am very careful not to label him as silly. I want him to know that I take him seriously, even if his emotions and actions are what others may see as childish.

  2. We say silly sometimes. More like the way you described in the scene of being connected. We say “Let’s make silly faces together” or “The dog is being so silly by trying to dance with us” or “Lets come up with silly songs” or “teach me how to be silly”. We do a lot of laughing and making up things in my house, as y daughter is very creative. Everyone here is silly sometimes, but I think we use it more as a description than a judgment.
    That being said, I have often seen it used to dismiss a child, to try and talk them out of there serious feelings, or to acknowledge them quickly without interacting. I think it is good to be aware of that be conscious about its use and meaning

  3. I have never realized that calling a child “silly” is labeling, like “good”, and “bad”. I always try to “notice” a child’s actions without labeling but the label silly hasn’t crossed my mind. Thank you for this new awareness.

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