Friday, March 2, 2012

Verbal Pussyfooting

"Say what you mean and mean what you say."

As parents, language is arguably our most powerful weapon. Common knowledge tells us that it's what separates humans from beasts, after all. It's what we use to convey our approval or disapproval. To teach lessons and affect behavior. Right?

Well, not so much anymore.

I'm so tired of mothers and fathers, teachers and school administrators, public authorities and the media using language that's "politically correct" but simply doesn't say what we're trying to say! The very phrase "politically correct" is a fine example of what I'm talking about. If someone smears another race or gender or sexual orientation, we shake our heads and mutter, "Well, that wasn't very politically correct, was it?" For effect, we might raise our hands and make little air quotation marks with our fingers.

Why don't we say what we mean? We need to come right out and, if appropriate, say, "That was ignorant, bigoted, hateful, prejudiced."

There's another example in my sentence above: "appropriate." Tweens post "inappropriate" content online. Kids respond in an "inappropriate" way to their teachers. A young boy makes an "inappropriate" gesture to a young girl in front of a half dozen friends. A young girl sends "inappropriate" pictures of herself via text.

Is this behavior "appropriate?" Hell no! But, more importantly, it's wrong. It's vile, disgusting, dangerous behavior. When did we all get so scared to call a spade a spade?

(Many, by the way, think that the colloquialism I just used is itself "politically incorrect." In actuality, "calling a spade a spade" refers to shovels, not people of darker complexion. It dates back to 178 BC and was first used in English in 1542 in a translation that reads: "Philippus answered, that the Macedonians were fellows of no fine wit in their terms but altogether gross, clubbish, and rustic, as they which had not the wit to call a spade by any other name than a spade.")

Okay, linguistics lesson over.

Enlightened thinkers agree that there are no bad kids anymore. Just misguided young people who have "challenges," and consequently partake in "inappropriate" behavior. All right, I am as liberal-lefty as they come (just ask any of my token Republican friends), but I will argue quite loudly that sometimes kids are bad. Of course, I'm talking about their actions, not their souls (that is not for me to judge). But, the girl who holds court in the middle school cafeteria and knowingly hurts the feelings of other girls?

Bad, bad, bad!

Our new school superintendent recently met with parents to talk about his education plan and the transition between middle and high school. He emphasized that his focus is not on individual professionals in the district but on "student outcomes."

WTF? The parents (and let's face it, these meetings are always 105% moms and, if it were possible, less than no dads) nodded their heads in rapt assent. I would have preferred more specific language. What are "student outcomes?" Standardized tests? College admissions? GPAs?

When something goes wrong at home (wrong, as in our tween daughter has done something w-r-o-n-g, not inappropriate but wrong), we have a little family meeting and we discuss "consequences."

"We must all take responsibility for our actions," we explain in the mode of the contemporary, conscientious, concerned parent. "What do you think would be an appropriate consequence?" Invariably, our daughter looks at us like we have multiple heads. And, I don't blame her. She knows damn well what we mean; I'm sure we sound like idiots.

Here's what we should say ... "You broke the rules. You snuck your cell phone up to your room after hours and here is your punishment." End. Of. Story.

This would not make us heartless dictators. This would not make our daughter a victim or permanently scar her for life. In my book, this would be clear, concise and entirely "appropriate."

So, the next time you fall into the psychobabble we've wrapped around the parenting process, think twice. If your son or daughter has done something dumb, wrong or just plain bad, tell them. Succinctly yet specifically, without raising your voice. You might get the reaction you want a little more. They might roll their eyes a little less.

Do me a favor? Think about it.

And until then, my friends, let's all "Make good choices."


  1. Huzzah!!! Great post and I couldn't agree with you more!
    I recently had a meeting with my sons teacher and I asked her what consequences were laid out if he didn't turn in his homework. She looked down and said the school only focuses on positive rewards. I had to GIVE her my permission to have a consequence in place. In my house there is no rewards and no punishments. There are only consequences: good for the right choice, not so good for the wrong choice, This way my kids learn it is UP TO THEM to make choices.

  2. I agree also. It's so important for parents to tell their children exactly what was wrong with their behavior. Otherwise, how will they know? It's even more important for me with a daughter with (suspected) Aspergers because she is very literal in her thinking, so she often misses an "double" meaning I might say.