Over the past few weeks I’ve been intrigued by both the NFL and Lean In attempting to persuade people to not use certain words. According to reports, the NFL is considering making it a penalty for a player to use the N-word on the field. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and others have started a campaign to #banbossy. I know of other campaigns to ban words from our daily usage as well. While in high school, my oldest daughter alerted me to the campaign Spread the Word to Stop the Word in relation to the term retarded. I know there are other words that people or groups have tried to ban, also with perfectly legitimate reasons. However, I don’t want to debate the merit of any of these campaigns. I’d rather look at childhood language development since I’m viewing this through the lens of a dad with young children.
As a parent, and specifically as a SAHD (but this applies to any At Home parent) because I’m around my kids so much, I have a huge influence on the development of my children. I am fully aware of this critical role I play in their lives and that’s one of the many reasons I chose to become a SAHD over 13 years ago. One of the biggest areas of influence is in the words I choose to use with my kids. And in front of my kids. They learn how to talk and what words to use from how I speak around them. Back in 1998, when my oldest was only three years old, my younger brother brought his girlfriend to meet us all for the first time. At some point during their visit his girlfriend said “stupid” in a playful manner about something. My daughter heard it and told her very seriously, “We don’t say that word in our family.” To this day they still joke with my daughter about that incident (my little brother married her despite her potty mouth). I wish that I could report that the term “stupid” is never uttered in our house. The point of that cute story is to illustrate that language is learned and can be guided. I go back to my own childhood for a not-so-cute memory about the word nigger.
I remember being in the back seat of my grandpa’s large Buick sedan as we drove from Lake Michigan back to his house across town in Racine, Wisconsin. To get back to his house we had to go through a part of town that wasn’t middle-class white. Being born in 1902, my grandpa used the term nigger like it was no big deal when talking about black people. Although, in this particular instance he was using it in a rather derogatory manner because he probably felt threatened by the black people “taking over” his beloved city. Was he racist? Most likely. He died in 1990 when I was only 17 so I can’t really speak to his thoughts about black people. But, I can say that his use of that term was very jarring for me. It wasn’t a word we used in my house. Looking back at that memory makes me appreciate the fact that I never heard my own father use that term even though he grew up with a father who used it. My father chose to break away from the pattern of his childhood in how he raised his family. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that choice. I know plenty of people today who still use that term to try to express their hate and vitriol for black people. It’s probably one of the most loaded and vile words in the English language. Even typing the word nigger for this post makes me very uncomfortable. (My guess is that it makes you equally uncomfortable to read it and that’s the point!) It is a word that I don’t use and have never even typed before because it is so terribly offensive and hurtful. My nine year old son had never heard of the term when I asked him about it before writing this post. So, I explained a little bit about it and made him promise to never use that word and to speak up if he ever hears someone else use it. While a small piece of his childhood innocence was lost in that conversation I hope that I’ve begun to instill in him a sense of moral and civic responsibility to speak up when people use words like nigger (or retarded, faggot, homo, etc.) which are meant to hurt and demean others. I asked my 14 and 12 year old daughters if they knew what the term meant and they both told me that they learned about it in school from teachers. My 14 year old said, “I know it’s bad. Besides, it’s not like you and mom ever use that word.” So, since I don’t use the N-word at all, much less around my kids. I must be a great dad, right?
Not so fast! I’ve been fortunate enough to be a SAHD for many years. One of the things I get to do is drive my kids to/from school and all over the place as we do stuff together. While I don’t swear at all or beep my horn much, I do enjoy venting a little bit at the stupid (we don’t say that word, either!) drivers who are constantly surrounding me. It’s not even on the scale of road rage or anything like that. Just some good sarcastic humor to help me cope with their stupidity (sorry again). Only problem is that I’ve got ears in the back seat with a mouth that repeats. This point was illustrated not too long ago when my adorable three year old noticed the Prius ahead of us not moving when the light turned green. Naturally, she admonished the driver to go, saying “Come on old lady, find the gas pedal!”. While I was proud that she was contextually correct in the application of her language, I was appalled at what I’d just heard. When my daughter opened her mouth, I heard myself. Pretty sobering. It was at that moment that I decided that I needed to curb my comments, although once in a while a “Learn how to drive!” or “Roundabouts just aren’t that hard!” flies out of my pie-hole before I realize it.
By sharing these different stories I’m trying to raise awareness about the importance of the words we each choose to use. And yes, it’s a choice. How we talk to and in front of our children can, does and will influence what words they choose to use. It also tells a lot about the kind of person we each are on the inside. If we, as parents, would choose to use our words to build up and encourage one another instead of to tear down, then we wouldn’t need to have campaigns to ban certain words. And that starts at home with us, setting expectations for our children while being mindful of the influence that we have on their development. They’re always watching us and absorbing like big sponges. The bottom line is that our words have power.; the power to build up or the power to tear down. I’ll leave you with one last anecdote that just happened today. As we were driving, one of my older kids said the word “stupid” and my three year old said, “Oooh. You’re going to get in trouble. My daddy doesn’t allow his kids use that word!” Message received and delivered.