The Bad Words We Are Teaching Our Children

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.

Can you tell the sex or gender identify of this child?  Does it matter?
Can you tell the sex or gender identify of this child? Does it matter?

30 thoughts on “The Bad Words We Are Teaching Our Children

  1. this is so important and you did such a great job. I hardly ever think about the fact that we have gender neutrality or boy and girl stuff because both my girl and boy play with everything with no rhyme or reason. What you are saying is so important and I need to be more aware of it.

    1. thanks katy. i feel like i did a somewhat shitty job explaining (why is it so hard to do?) but decided to post it anyway. SO. IMPORTANT. Love your adorable twins – they are so freaking amazingly fun to watch grow up.

      1. An excellent job, IMO! Part of why I didn’t want to know the sex of this baby (or D) was that I don’t think it gives valuable information about who the baby will be, and didn’t want others to develop their own ideas on that basis, either. Last time we got tons of affronted comments: “How do we know whether to buy pink or blue?!” To which my response, “Thanks for affirming my choice!”

        1. Yes, I absolutely HAD to know the sex of my own child – but this was the one of the main reasons I second-guessed that decision. At least a lot of people knew me well enough (and respected me enough) to not only buy pink!!

      2. It’s hard because it’s so ingrained in our society, most people wouldn’t give it a second thought. I thought you did a marvelous job, well done!

  2. I see this a lot at the Lugnuts. Boys will choose a pink mini bat and the dads (and sometimes the moms) totally try to discourage their kids’ choices, even when they told him to choose! It is hard for me to hold my tongue!

  3. This is amazing. I once got in a gigantic fight with my husband because my son picked up a pink horse thing at the toy store – and while my husband didn’t say “that’s for girls” he did dismiss it as being something my son wants. With that said, your line about “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” – here, here. Or hear, hear, whatever the expression is. My son IS different from the norm. He’s 4 1/2 and about 2 in some ways – and on the autism spectrum. Still, though, in some ways, he is 7, and loves what he loves.
    I vow to be more mindful always about the Real Bad Words – which are as you’ve defined them here. I’m okay (mostly) with him saying “sh!t” if he drops a toy. I’m way less okay if he thinks it’s not okay to like tabu pink.
    This is wonderful. Really and awesomely.

  4. I especially like no 4. We are not defined by how we look but what is on the inside. Sadly, inadvertently we teach the opposite to our kids.
    And it sticks to them throughout their lives and no matter what we say to them after that will be too late.
    And that is one lovely child…the gender doesn’t matter, it’s the heart that matters, the potential, the promise…

  5. My daughter (who is 15) wants to be an astrophysicist: at a recent careers evening at school, not only was she told that ‘not many girls want to do that’, she was also told ‘we don’t get many from schools like this wanting to do that.’ Apparently to do physics, she must be both a boy, and come from a private school. Luckily she has inherited my stroppy nature and told both the people involved to do one.
    Oh, and she loathes pink.

  6. You’re so right… it’s not about being a girl/boy but being a good person! We def dont emphasise that enough nowadays.
    My children play with everything, although my boys tend to stay away from the dolls. My daughter is into all the ‘boys’ toys and although she has worn ‘pink’ she generally wears blue (navy – i love it) but also some of her brothers’ hand me downs. They suit her! ; )

  7. You know something strange along those gender lines? I’ve seen moms (plural!) Nearly shoving what are traditionally seen as ‘girl’ toys at their sons, and even replacing trucks or trains with more ‘girl’ toys in order to keep their boys from being stereotypical. Even though the boys were clearly more interested in playing with the ‘boy’ toys. It was weird.

    1. Yea. Shoving anything at a kid doesn’t sound good, but sounds like they’re trying to battle some of the negative messages being blasted at their boys. Like everything, there’s a balance.

  8. I completely agree with what you have mentioned in this post. I would give anything to shield my children all their lives, but I know this is not possible. But that being said it is still wise for us to shelter them from the harsher things in life while we can. I appreciate you posting this on here. I really enjoyed reading and found myself shaking my head yes to most of what I was reading. I’m sure if anyone would have seen me they would have found me looking quite hilarious! Have a good day!

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