Ask Scary Mommy: Help! My Four-Year-Old Is Giving Everyone The Bird

by Wendy Wisner
Elva Etienne/Getty

Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.

This week: What do you do when your preschooler won’t stop giving everyone the bird? Got a question? Email

Dear Scary Mommy,

I have an issue that I’m too scared to post about in my moms group because I can only imagine the judgement some moms would fling my way. But, my preschooler (4 years old) won’t stop flipping people off. He flips off his teacher behind her back when he’s upset, he flips off his classmates during outside time, he flips me off, he flips off strangers when we are stopped at a red lights. He even flipped off his Nana on Zoom! Now his dad and I do curse, so he’s heard some choice words, but we do not flip people (or each other) off. I’m not sure where he learned it, but we can’t seem to make him unlearn it. I think he got attention for it at school, and the shocked reactions fueled the fire. But now, he won’t stop. We’ve tried talking him through what it means and why it’s not nice, time-outs, and even letting him flip things off in his bedroom only. None of it works. It was mildly amusing at first, but now it’s getting old. What the heck do I do here?

Okay, I know what you are describing is a real problem and I totally get why you are upset. But can we pause for a second to acknowledge how incredibly hilarious this is?

Your kid likely has no idea what flipping someone off means exactly, but is basically doing what every last one of us wishes that we could – telling people exactly what we think of them, and how irritating and annoying they can be. I mean, this kid is living his best life, and I can’t help but envy him.

But back to your query. As I mentioned above, your child really, truly likely has no idea what giving someone the middle finger even means. He’s four years old, after all! But what he does know is that doing this is getting him a lot of attention, and he likely revels in that.

It probably doesn’t help that everyone he does this to is seeming shocked and upset by his actions. It’s understandable that people are having this reaction, because flipping someone off is not considered socially acceptable behavior, especially in environments like school, and among one’s grandparents.

However, the downside in feeling offended by his behavior is that it only seems to egg your child on, which is the opposite of what you want. I know you can’t fully control how others react, but if you are able to convey to others that they might want to try a “gray rock” approach to the whole situation—where you don’t react, or at least underreact to the situation—that might really help make the behavior disappear.

You can at least try this at home. Look him in his eyes and explain, gently but firmly, that his preferred gesture is something that many people don’t like, or think it’s mean. Then when he does it again, rather than lecturing him about it, doing a timeout, or trying to redirect him, just don’t really respond. Change the subject, move onto another activity, etc. Think of things that make your child feel happy and like he is getting attention. Swap this attention-getting activity for something more wholesome—or at least, you know, less expletive-filled.

Remember that whatever happens, and however long it takes for this behavior to end, it will end. Your kid isn’t going to be flipping people off for the rest of his life. Take comfort in the story of Scary Mommy’s Deputy Editor, Rita, whose youngest son was your son’s exact age when he also found an affinity for the middle finger – and its origins were innocent. “At the time, he called it ‘Spider-Man fingers,'” she explains. “He truly thought it was the motion Spider-Man made when he shot webs. But it got a reaction that he found hilarious.”

Courtesy of Rita Templeton

Courtesy of Rita Templeton

She’s happy to report that this phase didn’t last long; he’s eight now, and frequently praised for his good manners. (Whew!)

As for the jerks in your life who might judge you … well, they need to keep in mind that your kid is only four, isn’t doing this to be malicious, and that there is really no issue here besides the fact that he picked up something you’d rather he didn’t. Unless you were actively teaching your kid to curse people out, this doesn’t reflect poorly on you. It’s just a cute and hilarious kid mistake. Truly.

And for people who continue to judge you no matter what … well, you know what to do about that. Or maybe you can get your kid to do it for you.