Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just Words

As a writer I'm hyperaware of the power of words. Even one word, carefully chosen, can elevate or destroy, inspire passion, evoke hate, crush a soul.

I have a ten-year old boy. He's a nice kid, but even nice kids (sometimes especially nice kids) have to come up with a way to protect themselves from the harsh world of the playground. Words are becoming his weapons of defense. They aren't curse words, but they are hurtful--retard, moron, idiot. I correct him. I get angry. I try to think of creative ways to show the damage these words can cause. Just when I think he gets it, I hear a group of his friends talking while playing hockey. "That's so gay," one of them says. The rest laugh. I realize I'm fighting a battle I'll probably lose.

This issue was tackled so effectively on the show Glee this week. The father of the gay character defended his son after another boy used the word "faggy." The boy didn't mean the harm the word caused, and was shocked by the father's reaction. In an incredibly moving speech, the dad effectively explained the pain, the cumulative pain of a word often used so casually. I went back and forth on whether or not to show this to my son, and ultimately didn't because he'd be watching it out of context.

I guess my job is to connect these words to the pain they cause. The lady down the block has a son with Down's syndrome. We wave hello in the morning on our walk to school. Should ask my son if he'd call this man a retard? My husband's cousin brings his partner to family parties. Would it be appropriate to use the word fag? To call out someone for being "so gay" in front of Jon and Ed?

This seems a little mean, I know. He's ten. But then he's eleven, and then comes junior high and high school where the words (and the cruelty) become much, much worse.

Many of you have kids. Any ideas on how to handle this? I welcome your words of advice!


  1. My daughter's only five, and I share your concern about the language and using words in almost unconscious way. I probably take it too far sometimes, but I do make a point of saying, "How would you feel if" when needed.

  2. Loretta - this is a great post. It is hard being a parent, especially as your children grow up and peer pressure becomes so important to them. I think you are doing just right. Just keep talking to him about this from time to time. Even though he's going to have his own learning curve in growing up, your views on life, and your lessons in kindness will stay embedded in his soul, and will hopefully kick in at the appropriate times when he needs them, on his way to maturity. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  3. Oh gosh, I think I better bookmark this post because in a few years I know I'm going to be in the same position. Your take on everything sounds perfect to me and that's exactly what I'll attempt to do when my kids are older. As of right now poop and diaper head are the names of choice around here and thankfully we don't know anyone that regularly wears a diaper on their head so typically no one gets offended. Well, no one except me.

  4. Oh, God. I'm afraid. Is it too late to move with Lily and join some sort of tropical island tribe that has Wi-fi and Chinese takeout?

    Or, um, you know. What you said sounds good.

  5. Trust your instincts. You know what is right; that's why you are a great mom. Oh, and that scene in Glee was fantastic.

  6. Wow, this is tough, L. I would be lying if I said I haven't used the phrase "That's so gay." In fact, I can think of a particular gay-pride event I attended and actually used it there. And then tried to save myself with "...well, obviously I don't mean it like that, uh, because I'm here, uh...and obviously I'm cool with it, uh...I'll shut up now." My friends just laughed but I felt like such an idiot. I'll tell you one thing, though--I learned my lesson that day! I don't think I've said it since.

  7. Thanks, gals!

    It's so hard to police this stuff without being overbearing. I guess it comes down to working that empathy section of the brain, you know? So hard, though.

  8. The best way to teach kids right from wrong is to do the right thing yourself - genuinely and obviously, openly and confidently.

    Do you TALK to the kid with Down's or is it just a distant wave? Does your son see you interacting with minorities or is it all theoretical? Act the way YOU should and you won't need to worry much about your son.

    BTW: Do only women read this blog?

  9. Hey, Steeleweed. Welcome!

    The gentleman with Down's is well into his thirties, and I was being disingenuous when I said walking to school. We are usually running to make the bell!

    Acting as a role model is definitely important, but at the tough ages, the hard peer pressure years, it's sometimes not quite enough. And yes, our friends are quite the diverse lot.

    I think I have a few guys on board with GBL, but I always welcome more dudes. Care to follow?