I’m struck this week by the power of words to shape a child’s experience, development and identity. Unfortunately it was a theme this week: I overheard two Kindergarten students call each other a “fag”, watched a mother tell her 2nd grader that she needs “to be stronger” and ignore her hurt feelings, and heard a teacher publicly shame a 1st grader for not being able to quickly zip up his coat. Are you kidding me? When did this become okay?
Throughout this week I am remembering the words of Mitzi Toro – a school counselor in Hawaii that is recognized for coining the change in language that labels children as “at promise” instead of “at risk.” I attended a seminar she gave years ago and since that time I often reflect on the power of labels. The “at-risk” label is used frequently and seemingly without much intention in the world of education and youth programming. There’s no way it doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy for at least some of the kids that hear it being applied to them. I can’t imagine how I would react if I knew people in conference rooms and beyond were readily referring to me as at risk, let alone our kids.
I can’t think of labels without thinking of the movement to use people-first language that I was first exposed to when working in Colorado with people with special needs. The basic premise is that saying something like “autistic kids” or “the blind” defines people by their physical abilities or developmental differences instead of by their strengths, character, etc. Something as simple as identifying someone as a ‘person with _____’ (autism, down syndrome, learning disabilities, etc) almost guarantees that you’re going to generate an image of a person first and foremost for the listener, and any differences in abilities/development/etc will be secondary characteristics. It forces us to use language with intention and, I think, more intention would serve us all well.
And, in case you’re wondering, I did stop the two Kindergarten students as they walked by, but the interaction led me to the conclusion that they didn’t even know the meaning of the word they were using, but they just knew it was hurtful and therefore in their list of name-calling options. I don’t even want to think about where a couple of 5 year olds heard this language.
Children are notorious for internalizing all kinds of things to the extreme. They hear something we say in passing and all of a sudden they’ll replay it over and over in their heads and interpret meaning we never intended.
So, let’s all work harder to empower our youth with intentional, careful language. And, we adults can become allies to children by helping remind other adults of the power of words, despite how difficult that conversation can be.