Our words matter. As parents, we know we are responsible for teaching our children how to respect themselves and others, and that our words help shape their life-long inner dialogue. Some of the “bad” words we try to shield our children from at an early age are obvious, such as swear words or hate speech or rude, nasty comments. We would never purposefully and passionately teach young, impressionable minds words like, shi*t, a**hole or *n*gger, or phrases such as, “you’re stupid” or “I hate you“. Even if we know they’ll hear those words eventually, we shield them while we can since those aren’t the kind of harmful messages we want to promote.
But some bad words are hidden. Some words are so entrenched within our society that they are glossed over and appear seemingly benign, even though they are stealthily destructive and dangerous. So, besides holding back on the swears and derogatory remarks, let’s also hold ourselves back from spouting off this kind of language as well:
1) That’s for girls. This one breaks my heart. BREAKS IT. I’ve witnessed way too many little boys pick up an object and hear, “that’s for girls” and have the toy taken away, or have an item they choose (or color – guess which one?) pointed out as being “not for them”. The puzzled look on their young faces is a good reflection of the fact that there is no logical reason for this distinction. Why shouldn’t a boy play with a doll or a crown or any toy that’s pink? Is there something wrong with playing with these things? Something shameful? If not, what’s the big deal? By using this phrase, we’re doing nothing but teaching our boys to feel badly about, and possibly hide, their own likes, preferences and emotions from an early age. Even scarier – we’re teaching that there is something wrong with someone who doesn’t make the “right” choices we arbitrarily assign to their particular sex and might be teaching that any choice labeled as “girly” is “less than”.
2) That’s for boys. This one you don’t hear spoken out loud as much, but you see it just as often in actions. Even little girls, like my toddler, who are showered with gifts often find themselves lacking when it comes to things such as basketball hoops, t-ball games, or sports equipment of any kind. Last I checked, toddler girls need to work on their motor skills to the same extent as toddler boys. And no one is drafting anyone’s toddler for the NFL just yet, so I don’t think this is about the need for the little lads to hone their skills. Think kids aren’t getting the drift just because this phrase is said with actions instead of words? Think again. Children of both sexes can figure out “what’s for them” at a very early age without needing to be told directly.
3) Oh, he’s just being a boy. Um, maybe. Or maybe he’s just being a little sh*t. This phrase is often associated with poor manners, poor self-control or poor discipline. Let’s not condone bad behavior in our children and excuse it away with a flippant remark about the child’s sex. Rowdy boys are often described as “just being boys” while rowdy girls may be called “obnoxious”, “bossy” or “bad”. We too often accept certain behaviors in boys, but reprimand the same behaviors in girls. Is he REALLY being a “boy”? Or is he just a little energetic? Or is there another more appropriate adjective that would actually describe the behavior at hand? Off the top of my head I can think of a sister, a cousin and an aunt who were wild, hyper kids, and several male cousins and nephews and who were calm and quiet little bookworms, and I’m confident each and every one of us can bring to mind examples such as this. Generalizations don’t do anyone any good (keep reading below, if you’re still not convinced), particularly when they result in fostering poor behavior. These bad words might be spoken about our kids instead of to them, but they still get the message.
4) You look so pretty! This one doesn’t seem so bad as a stand-alone sentence. But when repeated multiple times, by multiple people, at the expense of other, more valuable comments, it’s incredibly dangerous. The other day I put a headband on my daughter’s head, in order to keep the hair from falling into her eyes, and my aunt said, at least 4 times, “Oh, look how pretty you are! So pretty!” Other than the excessive commenting about the hair piece, my aunt didn’t make many remarks about anything else my daughter was doing, even though she was actively playing, talking and dancing. My daughter didn’t give much of a reply – at one year old she doesn’t even know what “pretty” means. Yes, I occasionally tell her she’s beautiful, and sometimes this is referring to her outside looks, but typically when I describe her looks to her I use words like “clean” or “neat”. A majority of our conversation revolves around topics such as singing, reading, stacking, sorting, or exploring. Who she is does not equate to how she looks. We find a lot of ways to talk to boys about what they think, what they do and how they act. We often ignore all of those things when we talk to our girls and focus on the superficial, resulting in long-lasting insecurities about self-image and self-worth. Enough with the you-look-so-pretties.
As parents, we know a lot about our children – what they like to read, to play with, to eat, what their habits are, what comforts them. But we don’t know everything about them. We don’t know who they’ll be as adults, as sexual beings, or what gender attributions they will take on as their own as their identities emerge. Not only do we not know everything about our own, but we certainly don’t know all of the other people our children will encounter in their lives, whom our kids will judge or accept, based on what they learn from us.
A recent Psychology Today article written by Christina Brown titled, The Way We Tak About Gender Can Make A Big Difference, described a study that showed how children exposed to only four weeks of gender-labeling in their classroom environment were more likely to express that ONLY men or women could attain certain types of jobs (think astronaut, engineer, politician) or act in certain roles (think nurturing, or as a care-taker). She points out that this should be incredibly worrisome and that, “parents who want their daughters to aim high in their careers should take note, as should parents who want their sons to become nurturing, caring fathers”. These differences resulted from gender labeling alone – meaning name tags and other school-related items were labeled with pink or blue to indicate boy or girl, or comments to individuals or groups in the class included a reference to sex (“what a smart girl” or “I need the boys to settle down) instead of using student names or referring to the class as a unit.
The class as a whole not only began making devastating generalizations about future career options and abilities, they also began to notice less variability about the differences between all of the boys in the group or all of the girls in the group, and instead began to assert that ALL the boys in class or ALL the girls in class acted a certain way. Not recognizing and appreciating variability within a group does nothing to promote learning and acceptance and does everything to promote bullying, ridicule and inaccurate assumptions by those who fit the mold, and anxiety, resentment and negative self-image by those who don’t. Brown states that “if your child is different from the norm in any way, you as a parent do not want them to feel like a failure or a misfit”. None of us want that for our own children, and we all need to work to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s.
Enough with teaching our children bad words with negative messages that lead to negative actions. Lets encourage our kids to be good people. Not good girls or good boys. Good people.