“Daniel called me an S-WORD HEAD!”
(She actually said “S-word” head because she could NOT bring herself to say, ‘shit’.)
Miss M was six years old. She came running to me after school, upset because someone had used *gasp* the S-word. She was horrified and devastated that a child could use THAT word.
It was then that a light bulb switched on and I had an A-HA moment.
As a mother, I had taken such pains to teach her that it’s wrong to say ‘swear words’ that I had given the words themselves disproportionate power. In my attempt to raise polite kids, I had gone to the other extreme and created a situation where other children could use words to hurt my kids. I had, in fact, single-handedly turned swear words into gargantuan, scary boogeymen, wielding rusty machetes. Good one, Mum.
Clearly, I needed to revisit my approach here.
When we got home, Miss M and I sat down and discussed words. I wrote down the word, THIS and asked her if that was a bad word. Bewildered, she shook her head and said, “Of course, not”. Then I wrote HITS and again I asked her if that was a bad word. Again, she shook her head, no. Then I wrote SHIT, and she gasped and exclaimed, “Mum! You wrote the S-word!” Bingo.
I pointed out that SHIT is simply four letters of the alphabet arranged in a group. Like THIS and HITS, SHIT is just a word.
Suddenly, not so bad, huh?
We discussed the amazing power of language and how words can evoke emotion. We talked about the appropriate use of words, depending on who is speaking, who they are speaking to and where they are when they speak. To illustrate this point, I told her this story about herself when she was a toddler:
When Miss M was four years old, she went through that phase where loudly saying “poo”, “bum” and other assorted “naughty” words was about the most thrilling and funny thing imaginable. I had explained to her that those words were ‘toilet words’ and that they were okay to say in the toilet because they described what we do there but that they were not so cool when yelled at rockstar decibels in the supermarket.
She screeched with laughter as I recalled the day that she had been about as angry as a four year old could be because I wouldn’t let her wear my high heels to kindy… how she had stomped her feet and stormed off to the bathroom where she had yelled, freely and with wild abandon, “POO! BUM! FART! WEE! BOOBIES!”.
Why is that story funny? Because it so clearly shows that words are just words.
Sure, they most certainly have the power to hurt – often much more than physical blows. They have such immense power, in fact, that we should choose them thoughtfully and use them with great care. Their power can cause cut deeper than any sword – absolutely – but words also have the opposing power to heal, to elevate, to inspire.
Miss M was awe-struck. This concept really hit home with her. She said to me,
“Mum, words are sort of like magic wands!”
She was right. Language gives us incredible power and we should use this power wisely – to lift people up rather than putting them down; to deflect verbal attacks and to defend our beliefs.
My problem was that although I had very effectively taught her about the power of words, I had completely neglected to show her that WE HAVE ANOTHER POWER. The power to decipher other people’s words.
By blanket-labelling all swear words “BAD”, I had not armed Miss M with tools to analyse the words people say and the empowerment to decide for herself whether they would affect her or not. I had made that decision for her, in advance, essentially setting her up to be hurt because all swear words were very very bad.
Now that she was able to look at words critically and understand that words are just words, she was able to take the next step and understand that words say more about the person talking than the one being spoken about. In her own A-HA moment, Miss M exclaimed,
“Mum, when that Daniel called me a shit-head, HE was the one who looked bad. Not me! So, I don’t have to feel sad!”
It’s a lesson for life, isn’t it? A lesson I only really learned myself that day, as I worked through this issue with my little girl.
Words really do say so much more about the speaker than the one being discussed.
We can only be responsible for what we say and how we choose to respond to what others say.
I learnt a huge lesson that day: children are so much brighter than we give them credit for and we really should discuss the whys behind our rules. More often than not, our kids will apply the reasoning themselves and create their own rules. They will learn to listen critically and then, hopefully, brush off the words that say nothing about them. They will become more resilient.
By labelling certain words, actions, behaviours as BAD, we are robbing our kids of the chance to analyse what’s thrown at them and grow into thoughtful adults. Maybe this is why there are so many adults who sling Yo Mama insults at one another.
My parenting strategy changed dramatically that day. I became far more of a talker and less of a blanket rule-maker. (Don’t worry, I am not above saying “because I’m your mum and I said so” – even as I KNOW that in her head, Miss M is aiming a few well-chosen words my way.)
Last week, Baby G came home and reported that a girl in her class had called her “a stupid idiot”. Before I could open my mouth, Miss M took her baby sister by her shoulders and looked her in the eye and asked, “Well, are you a stupid idiot?”. With a gorgeous, bright smile and with hands on hips, Baby G replied, “No way, Josè!”
Miss M beamed and then triumphantly declared,
“You see, Baby G – when she called you a mean name, she was really telling you that SHE is mean. If you heard her calling another kid a ‘stupid idiot’, who would you think was the stupid idiot?”
Wide eyed, Baby G covered her mouth. Then, eyes twinkling mischievously, she proclaimed, “You said stupid idiot!” and started to laugh. Exploding into a fit of infectious giggles, she began to jump around the room, chanting,
“STUPID IDIOT, POO, BUM, PANTS FALLING DOWN…!”
Miss M, Little Man and I took one look at her and then one another and that was it. We howled with belly-clutching laughter until we had hiccups.
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