Tag Archives: swearing

Sticks and stones: why words do matter

Magnet lettersIf 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.

There are plenty of other examples around. My sister-in-law, Hallie Levine Sklar, wrote a very compelling post about overhearing a teenage boy call another kid a “F-cking retard” in which she writes:

“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.