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If you spend any amount of time around kids and teenagers, you might have noticed the often casual use of harsh and demeaning language: F-cking retard. F-cking faggot. Stupid b-tch. A–hole.
(My use of strategically placed dashes isn’t about prudery; it’s an attempt to avoid keywords that might bring people to this post when they really wanted something …. um… juicier.)
Girls good-naturedly refer to their good friends as sl-t or wh-re without thinking twice about it. Both sexes have a whole slew of slang terms referring to genitalia that get thrown around without any actual malice intended.
There’s nothing new about this. Kids have always wanted to shock their parents and teachers, push limits, challenge authority. When little kids start finding toilet words amusing, we often tell parents to let them know it’s not appropriate language, but to mostly ignore it.
If you ignore it, they’ll eventually get bored and stop. Or so the theory goes.
It’s mostly the same with teens. I’m a realist: if you really think your 14-year-old isn’t tossing off a few f-bombs now and then, you are seriously deceived. For many of them, the word is noun, verb, adjective and adverb. An all-purpose mode of expression. True for some adults as well.
What can we do as parents and educators? We can at very least make sure they understand context. You don’t unleash this kind of language with parents, teachers, their friends’ parents or Grandma. Or whatever.
But there are some terms that just go too far, words that cut through the usual rhetorical barrage of adolescence. These words have underlying meanings that are offensive, demeaning, stereotypical or violent.
Case in point: in the past few weeks, I’ve had a few parents mention how the word “rape” has crept into their kids’ expressions. One reader wrote in to say she heard her 8-year-old son tell another kid he was going to “rape him” if he didn’t score in that weeks game. It was said in a friendly, jocular manner, as if to say, I’m going to mess you up (but not really).
She was upset and shocked. She didn’t know what to say to her child, who almost certainly didn’t understand the real meaning of what he was saying. I’ve heard similar examples from other moms.
In my view, it’s not OK for kids (or anyone) to use the word “rape” in this way. It demeans and cheapens the horrific personal experiences of sexual assault victims. It diminishes the violence. Situates rapists within our culture (albeit on the fringes).
When young kids toss around the word “rape” when referring to a hockey game — even if they do not yet know what sexual assault is — they understand that there is an element of danger, of crossing boundaries. The term crosses over into common usage precisely because of the frisson that accompanies what isn’t allowed.
This is something that can’t be ignored. Parents who hear this need to speak up. Explain what it really means. Tell their kids why it’s wrong to use such a powerful, fraught word in a casual way.
“That kid’s a retard,” one of them was saying loudly. “A total fucking retard.” The boy looked about 16; he had white blonde hair about the same shade as Geoffrey’s and ears that stuck out like Dumbo’s from his face. He thrust his hands and tongue out, rocking back and forth with a Frankenstein like gait. “I can’t stand him. I mean, how fucking retarded can you be?”
Then he saw me.
It took a moment for it to register, that the blonde woman standing glaring at him was the same woman who spent almost every weekday afternoon at the toddler pool with her daughter. All the lifeguards know who Johanna is, especially after she had a particularly explosive diaper in the pool last month. And while they may not be the brightest bunch, they are clued in enough to realize she has Down Syndrome.
The boy’s eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed again and again, like a crazed dying guppy. I watched as he slowly lifted his right hand, waving it back and forth at me in a pathetic attempt to say hi.
Hallie acknowledges that before she had a child with special needs, she didn’t give much thought to the way people used the word retard. Now she dreads the day her preschool-aged daughter is old enough to understand the derogatory way it can be tossed around.
I also find it interesting how teen girls throw around words like b-tch, sl-t and wh-re. They may think it makes them seem like liberated young women, comfortable with their own sexuality. It actually has the opposite effect; the jocular way it gets thrown around works like a confirmation of the opposite meaning. It’s a way of reassuring a friend that they really aren’t a sl-t, that they are still accepted. It’s a kind of policing of adolescent girl sexuality, a series of reminders about the consequences of going too far.
Unlike cultural reclaimings of words like “queer” or “dyke” by people in the LGBT community, teen girls continue to use these words in negative ways. They are totally comfortable throwing it in someone’s face, demeaning another girl by suggesting she is too free with her body. It can be devastating.
So what should parents do? We need to continue to have conversations with them about the words that come out of their mouths. And, as always, we need to watch what comes out of our own mouths. We need to think about and discuss the underlying meanings of terms we throw around. How they can be insulting. Ignorant. Disempowering. How they can set the stage for exclusion and worse. Much worse.
Ever wonder what you might say to your younger self, if only you could pass on the wisdom you’ve accumulated throughout your teens, twenties, thirties or beyond?
This isn’t the same thing as writing out a mini-lecture to your own kids, full of rules, warnings and admonishments. It’s about taking the time to think through the hard lessons learned through experience, the insights gleaned from our regrets, the pride in choices well made or effort exerted. It occurred to me that this was a worthwhile exercise for anyone, parent or not, who worked with kids. You might also learn something about yourself.
If you’re willing to try it, let me know (info@risk-within-reason). Feel free to forward and share your notes to your younger self with your partner, your friends, or a friendly parenting blogger and educational consultant. Or fold it up and tuck it into a hiding place where no one else will find it. Or write and burn it. All good.
Dear 12-year-old me,
Hi there. It’s me, only older and with a few more lines on our face. And maybe a few extra pounds. But things are actually pretty good where we’re at right now. We’re happy. Really happy. We’ve gone one to do some wonderful things and meet some fabulous people. And maybe make a few mistakes along the way.
Mistakes are mostly OK. That’s how everyone learns. You just hope they don’t have irrevocable consequences and no one gets hurt by our ignorance or stubbornness. But see, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Looking back from middle age, there’s a few things I would love us to have known when we were 12. When everything seemed new and exciting and shiny. And a little scary.
Now that we have 12-year-old daughters of our own, it all seems so much clearer. I know they have to make their own mistakes, just like we did. But it’s hard not to try passing on some of the stuff we picked up along the way.
First thing, grow a backbone. Don’t worry so much about what everyone else thinks. Do what feels right. About the way we look. About our interests, beliefs and choices and even what we want to do on Saturday night. Honestly, from our perspective 28 years down the line, it won’t matter if we stayed home with some good books now and again instead of suffering through outings we went on out of some misplaced social anxiety.
For the few short years of high school, it seems so important to fit in, and have people approve of what you wear or who your friends are, or who you date. But as soon as you get past those years, you see that the people who rise above that are the truly interesting, original thinkers. The ones who go on to do amazing things with their lives, contribute to the world and find their own standard for happiness. It really does get better.
Don’t ever do anything that feels wrong just to be cool. Nothing good ever comes from drinking too much or trying drugs. You’re never going to impress those popular kids anyway, so just forget them. They aren’t worth it. Some of them will grow up to be just as irritating as adults as they were as teenagers: any 40-year-old woman I’ve known since childhood who still doesn’t smile at me out of courtesy when we pass in the grocery store aisle deserves my pity, not my outrage.
Cultivate our interests. Really interesting, successful people are well read, well-travelled, curious about others. They pay attention to what’s happening around them. They are engaged with the people the meet for their unique contributions. People genuinely like to be around them for who they are, not just what they can offer on a practical level.
Don’t worry so much about boys. Mom was right about this one. Have a fulfilling life, friendship circle and career — don’t wait for a man to come around and complete it. (That being said, and as an aside we wouldn’t have listened to anyway, I’d take a more critical look at Ted G. when we’re 16. Behind those blue eyes was a pompous idiot, but it took us 10 years of reflection to figure that out. Mom was right about that too, although she had the self-discipline to let us figure it out on our own.)
Cherish our friends. Forget the drama. We don’t fully appreciate how wonderful our high school girlfriends are until years later. Keep an eye out for each other. The boys that seem so important in high school are just memories now, but we still speak to almost all of the wonderful women those girls became.
Don’t wish any of this time away. It’s hard to see when you’re 12, but time totally runs away from you. We spend so much time wishing high school would end and our lives would finally start that we sometimes forget they already have. Even dark November Mondays or exam weeks, or the 5 days before summer break. All of those are days to be cherished. Because you know what? We never get to be 12 years old again.
Don’t give up math classes in grade 10. Probably the biggest mistake we ever make. We work hard to be a top-tier student, and although we totally love that grade 11 North American Literature course, not taking pre-calculus has some far-reaching implications down the line. I know math can be a big of a slog for us, but it’s one worth taking on.
Aim for great, not just good. We like to be comfortable, but it never works out when we settle for good enough. Takes us a while to figure this out, but we do get it in the end.
Don’t stop writing in our journal.
Listen to mom about almost everything (except the dress she’ll recommend for Jamie’s bar mitzvah).
There are a few other things I’d love to throw in:
forget the perm in 9th grade – BAD IDEA
take all of our meagre savings and buy stocks in a company called Apple. Or Research in Motion. Or Google.
carefully check the destination sign for each car on overnight trains to Switzerland so we wake up in Geneva, and not somewhere else
do NOT eat that turkey sub from D’Angelos in October 1994
avoid roommates with OCD and heroin junkie boyfriends when we get to grad school
wear sunscreen every day
These extra hints should probably be against the rules. But since I’m making up the rules, and we won’t listen to them anyway, what the hell.
And last but not least, take a moment every day to appreciate everyone who loves you, even if they just seem really annoying, incomprehensible and stupid to our 12-year-old eyes. Honestly, this is the most important thing we will ever learn.
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