Few behaviors get an adult riled up more quickly than a child sticking his tongue out. This gesture almost universally signals defiance, disdain or rebellion. Young children act impulsively and rarely consider the implications of such a gesture. Before you react harshly, consider the child's true meaning for the behavior. Select a guidance strategy that will encourage the child to develop self-mastery and social awareness.
A preschooler may innocently stick his tongue out because he has seen the behavior modeled by older children. A child might stick his tongue out in an attempt to be funny, find acceptance with peers or express feelings of resentment and rebellion. Occasionally, a child sticks his tongue out as a way to cover feelings of embarrassment or shyness in an awkward social situation. Before you rush to punish, consider what might be motivating the child.
When a preschooler sticks her tongue out, quietly explain that sticking your tongue out is considered rude and ask her to stop. Then change the subject and ignore her if she does it again. Talk with a child who uses this behavior to mask feelings of insecurity or social awkwardness. Offer strategies for how to initiate and continue a conversation and what to say if she's feeling embarrassed or shy. Plan structured opportunities for the child to play with one or two other children, inviting children who have strong social skills to model appropriate conversational behaviors.
If a child is sticking his tongue out to express defiance or resentment, you've got a larger problem to deal with first. Ignore the behavior for the time being and focus on developing a relationship of trust and respect. Treat the child kindly and show sincere interest in him. Set high expectations for how he treats you, as well. If the child resorts to rude behaviors, withdraw quietly until he regains self control. If the behavior continues, simply state, "I love you, but I can't be with you when you treat me rudely. Let me know when you are ready to be respectful and I will return." Then go into another room and remain there until the child reaches out to you. If the behavior occurs in a public place, quietly remove the child as soon as possible.
For many children, sticking out the tongue is an attention-getting device. By reacting strongly, you are giving the child exactly what she wants even if the attention is negative. Scolding or harshly disciplining the child allows her to focus her anger on you, rather than taking responsibility for her own bad behavior, according to Foster Cline, co-author of "Parenting With Love and Logic." Ignore or downplay the behavior and it will likely go away soon. Complement the child when she displays respectful, appropriate behavior. The child who sticks her tongue out as a way of saying, "I have a mind of my own. You can't control me," has developed an independent mind, which is a good thing. The trick, then, for thoughtful parents and teachers, is to help the child learn to use her independence in socially acceptable, constructive ways.