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.
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.