No Way Tree Be: Parenting in the Face of Hurtful Language

Words mean something. I know the Ladyfriend is probably laughing that I even said that because we have longstanding, um, “discussions” about word choice and nuance. My general stance in such arguments is “Yep, when I said ____ I actually meant something more like ____” or “No, that isn’t what I meant by the word ____(take your pick).  I actually meant ____”   Her position is that words matter. Words means something. And what comes out of my mouth first is what I really meant. And that the subtle, or not so subtle, nuance in words matter. A lot. This is a difficult place for us because I often have word finding troubles and, especially when I am anxious, will say that first word that pops in my head even if I know while saying it that it isn’t quite correct.

You’ll just have to trust me on how fun and awesome those little talks are (not).

Language and Word Choice

Anyway, an area that words matter a lot is harmful language. I draw a pretty hard-line here. Language is huge. There just isn’t reason to use phrases, words and terms that are potentially harmful. Especially those that are historically traumatic.  Words that have legacy.  I have talked a lot about this with the term homestead and urban homestead. I’ll fight tooth and nail against someone trying to trademark the terms because that is just gross. But can we just stop using the phrase all together?  Please?  It is time.

grow and resist parenting and language

Parenting and (Stupid) Words

Parenting gives you the opportunity forces you to check your own word choices and phrases, as well as phrases that are often heard.  Wanna know what feels like a kick in the gut? My sweet child calling something stupid or saying she hates something. It sounds so ugly, especially coming from a child. Now, I don’t have the most pristine language. I don’t let my full-on-potty-mouth fly in front of the Babylady, but I also don’t stop myself from swearing in front of her.  Interestingly, she never repeats our swearing. Seriously, the only thing she has ever said is “why did you say dammit?”  I think it is because we just don’t make a big deal about it.

Taking a Stance

We started hearing things that we didn’t want to hear. Agh.  Next up: taking a stance. Ever drawn a line in the sand with a kid this age? No? You are totally missing out!  Taking a stance with a 3.5 year old requires its own special kind of nuance.  Goal: Get in and get out. State your position, make it clear, but try not to inspire them to dig their heels in. Nonchalant, but clear and calm. Non-reactive, instructive and matter of fact works best. If you have a big reaction and make a big deal, I can tell you exactly how far that is going to get you. No-frickin’-where. Big reaction= guaranteed big opposition.  And really?  Do you want the big battle of your day to center around the word “shitty”?  Because I don’t. It is not only futile, but super boring.

Influence of Others

However. There is always a however isn’t there? Eventually they get to an age where they hear things their peers say. And those peers are repeating things they’ve been told not to say. So it is funny! Dangerous! Silly! And that is a lot more interesting to a kid than anything we might say.  So she’ll come home from school saying “piss. piss. piss. piss. piss. I need to piss. piss. piss”  all the while sporting a big grin and looking at us for a reaction (and having no idea what she is even saying).  Not cool. Not awesome.  Breathe. Instead of freaking out we look at her and say with a look of mild confusion “I am not sure what you are trying to say. Where did you hear that?” After she tells us we’ll say “Hmm, ok, well, I don’t really understand what you mean. Is there something you need?”   That 99% of the time stops it in that one interaction.

Crossing a Family Line

A few weeks ago I asked the Babylady to do something. To which she replied “No Way Jose.”  The Ladyfriend and I, both internally horrified, proceeded to ask calmly where she heard that and what it meant.  She happily told us where and proceeded to mutter a bunch ‘blah, blather, blah, blah” and a few made up words in an attempt to avoid us.

Ugh. How do you explain racism to an almost 4-year-old so they understand?  So that they realize that some phrases won’t be tolerated in our family? So that they hear you instead of immediately trying to get a reaction from you?

What happened next was unexpectedly beautiful. It turned out to be one of those moments that you are really proud of as a parent and was a look into how the Ladyfriend and I want to parent.   Luckily, racism and oppression is something we talk about often in our family and with her.  A lot of our in home teaching gets reinforced at her preschool as they follow an anti-bias curriculum and maintain social justice at their core. So, the Babylady has an early basis for understanding. She is developing the building blocks needed to resist dominance.

We got her attention and just began to talk. Jen asked her what color her skin was.  She replied “peachy-pinky.”  We asked her about what other skin colors that she notices and she enthusiastically told us what she knew.  Jen gently explained that peachy skin people have a long history of harming people because of different skin color.  And that some words and phrases, while perhaps seemingly harmless, because of our history can hurt our friends.  And that in our family we always try not to hurt other people.  We said that José is a person’s name, typically Latino. And that the phrase was put together in a mocking way of another person’s language. (* you can look up “mock spanish” or look here if you want to read more)

She seemed to take it in, so I continued.  I told her that there are a lot of words that people may or may not like, called swear words.  I told her there will be words that she is told not to say because someone else doesn’t like them and what she’ll learn is discretion. She’ll figure out when it is ok to use certain words and when it isn’t.

But when it came to words in our family the bottom line will always be “Can that hurt someone?”  And in our family it will never be okay to use language and words that might be hurtful to another person.  In all things parenting it feels good to know your bottom line and to know what the root of your reasoning stems from.  It felt like a solid basis for any other word negotiations in the future.  Can it hurt someone?

She thought for a moment and said “What can I say? Can I say ‘No Way Tree Be”?  She followed it up with some ideas of things she could say instead, including No Way Snickerdoodle, No Way Milk Kapilk and No Way Smuffin Muffin.

It was so clear in that yucky-turned-sweet moment that we need to have these talks with our kids. It is never to young to start. There is always enough time. The conversations shouldn’t be punitive or shaming. Instead they should be a chance to learn, to grow and to love.  A chance to connect with their adult, connect with themselves and through that, connect with the larger world. A chance to resist.

Growth. Connection. Resistance.

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18 Responses to No Way Tree Be: Parenting in the Face of Hurtful Language

  1. Laura Blackett says:

    LOVE THIS!!!!!!!!!

  2. Inder says:

    No Way Smuffin Muffin! Love.

    I also love this post. We are not at this point, as Joe is not verbal enough yet, but I am reading and taking notes, believe me. (Where are we? I’m still trying to recover from the recent announcement “No Mama! No Mama! Out!” while he pushed me away!) Thanks as always for the window into my future. :-)

  3. melissa says:

    It’s really interesting that you should post this today as this is a topic on which I’ve had a discussion with several people today. It started because of a local restaurant’s employee saying something incredibly (and intentionally) offensive to a customer (for which he was dismissed), and in the course of apologizing and making it known to the community that the business wanted everyone to feel welcome and that this kind of action would not be tolerated, the owner described the ex-employee’s actions as “retarded.” This spawned a lot of angry commentary from the community. For my part it evolved into a discussion about hurtful words and intent, and the way we should approach people when they use hurtful words (my point was that if they’re clearly not intending to use it in a hurtful way, then pointing it out in a kind way is the right response, not anger), and that we can all be more careful about the words we use but try to do so and encourage others to do so in a way that expresses the kindness we wish to show to others.

    All that to say, I love how you handled this and it just encourages me even more to continue to follow this example with my own words.

  4. Really? It never occured to me to think that “no way, Jose” was a racial slur. I just thought that “Jose” rhymed with “no way.” I mean, I’m sure I’ve said it in my life, but it would not have occured to me that it was anti-Latino in any way (much that same way that “no way, Renee” would not sound to me anti-French).

    Then again, I hang with about a million soccer boys and we come in all colors of the rainbow, but there is certainly a large population of Spanish-speakers among them. Trading insults, preferably racially charged (or about your mother) is practically a rite of passage. So it may be that my racial-sensitivity meter is on the low side.

    I do, however, strongly endorse “No way, Smuffin Muffin.” :)

    • Angela Watts says:

      This is one of the discussions I get into with a friend of mine all the time. I am a child of the 80′s….”retarded” was indeed the most charged word I could use as a child without getting my mouth washed out….I have many friends and fellow employees who are indeed challenged-both physically and mentally-and harbor them no ill will or treat them different. But just as purple is an adjective describing the exact shade of an item thats a mix of red and blue, “retarded” describes the exact magnitude of flaw in something. I use it to describe inanimate objects or manners of thinking, not people. By charging such a word with meaning we make it a big deal.

      Just like “nigger” or “negro” is something my parents used back when they were kids which is now a big no-no. As we evolve as a society we make changes and asking people to suddenly stop using words is difficult and not perfect in implementation. But when you get to the point where you entire world has been re-molded to not be offensive to anyone, its still offensive to someone, as it strips away the tradition and meaning from the history of life, and replaces it with clean and meaningless platitudes. Not to mention all the time spent thinking of what is and is not acceptable or being used that exact day instead of the day before or the week before.

      My mom was a big proponent of not “hating” anything….as most likely we really do not dislike something to that degree. I have agreed my entire life, I use hate as rarely as I use retarded. Smuffin Muffin is adorable though.

      • Hmm, yes it is difficult to change the habit of using a word or phrase. And, just because our parents used to say something doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredibly painful. I think there is an increased awareness that words do hurt. Words do manage to uphold legacies, such as racism and oppression. It isn’t about remolding to avoid offending but is more about being open to how something might impact another person. And believing that in a culture that is white dominant, where whiteness is centered and normalized, a lot of words have potential harm.
        It isn’t using a lot of time thinking what is/is not acceptable. It is being conscious of language choices, open to the truth that other folks live and learning.
        “Retarded” is demeaning terminology. People are all on a spectrum and being differently abled, mentally or physically, isn’t a flaw. It isn’t merely ascribing meaning to a word. The word is loaded with meaning and has a long history of categorizing folks that ended in forced sterilizations, unwanted/unwarranted medical treatments, institutionalization, etc.
        But I’m glad you liked Smuffin Muffin.

  5. hejemonster says:

    Well…since I’m the one who is the declarer that “words have meaning” and actually more to the point language is powerful and is used to invoke power…then i can surely be easily written off for what i am about to say…I have found my life to actually be quite full, interesting, deep, emotional, and awesome because I task myself to decolonize my mind, heart, actions, words, deeds, and moment-to-moment interactions. I find that I have time for this and that it is actually one of the core principles of my parenting and not an aside. For me this is not about “trying not to offend,” but more about social transformation. This is a daily, second-to-second way of being, not out of fear, but out of love. Here are some resources for those who wish to see how words have harmed: http://microaggressions.com/ http://abolishthenword.com/ http://therword.org/ http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/focus/antisemitism/

    just a few among many…

  6. Memaw Elise says:

    All I know is that as one of the grandmothers of this beautiful babylady I am constantly impressed with the thoughtfulness and integrity you both use to parent her. I am learning so much from both of you! The babylady is a lucky girl!

  7. Thought provoking post. Interesting about “No Way Jose.” I’ll add that to the list of things like, “To be gyp’d” or “To be Jewed,” that sound normal if you hear them a lot but are quite terrible if you think through their implied meaning as well. Put me down for, “No Way Smuffin Muffin” too.

  8. Kimberly Martinez-Warren says:

    I feel inspired by this as my ‘baby lady’ picks up more words, songs and phrases every day.  Even so Im not sure how useful the question ‘can it hurt someone?’ will be in my family given the other influences in our lives. I have been accused of hurting people each time ive resisted a social norm. Coming out, saying my beliefs,  getting a tattoo, challenging racism- all portrayed as premeditated attempts to cause harm to those who love me.  Perhaps going further into ‘why’ could it hurt as developmentally appropriate would function- but let me know as you develop new tools!! 

    • Too true- the difference of ‘can it hurt someone?’ can be a lot of things. I think the ‘why’ is critical– we incorporate that into our chats too. I imagine having a general, ongoing conversation about social norms and why it is important to think about them critically (and often resist), etc is an idea. We should do that! Another conversation to refer back to as new situations arise. Because they always do don’t they? We had a long conversation about homelessness and poverty the other day because we came across someone packing up for the day when we went blackberry picking.
      Anyhow, thanks for commenting!

  9. Kari Kesler says:

    We also follow the “can it hurt someone” line of reasoning, which I especially like with our teenagers. It allows me to say what I really want to say about swear words, which is, “I really don’t care if you use them. Just learn where you can say them so you don’t get yourself in trouble, and use them towards another person, to be mean to them.” If you got an F on your math test and you want to say fuck, go ahead, but don’t call your brother a fucker. I like that the general message works so well for our 2 year old and our 15 year old :)

    thanks for posting!

  10. I’m really enjoying some of your posts :D

    I too never really thought of No way Jose as a racial slur. I guess it’s like a fish not knowing water – I have never even wondered about the meaning. “Stupid” and “hate” and “ugly” have always been on the banned list in my house. I agree that somehow words like that really stand out when you hear them coming from a child. I find I’m more offended when the word is insulting or derogatory to someone than when it’s swearing, and yes, that means the dog too.

  11. Pingback: Top Posts of 2011 | Grow & Resist

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