I've been trying to figure out a way to write about recent discussions about words and language in our house. "Appropriate" is a word that Allison and I use a lot about language, and as the kids have gotten older, we've had to help them categorize words they might hear at school or in movies (or from Dad when he breaks something in the kitchen) as "appropriate" or "inappropriate."
Evan especially seems to have friends who are experimenting with inappropriate words lately. For a string of nights not long ago, Ev tearfully shared with us that he had actually said some of those words in an attempt to be funny or silly. It became clear to us is that Evan and his friends don't really have a firm grasp of the words they're trying out. Still, it was endearing that Ev obviously felt a level of guilt about the possibility that someone might have thought he had ill intent at any point in the words he was using. Allison was especially comforting to Ev when she explained that our words are important, and that we want to be sure we don't use words to hurt people--but that he has a good heart and loves people--and that if he follows his heart, he'll be just fine. He seems to have gotten over it.
Lala's questions about words are pretty different from Evan's. As in most things, she is more blunt about her questions and ideas. Where Ev will whisper something along the lines of "My friends and I might have said the s-word when we were being silly on the playground at school," Lauren is much more likely to say "Dad, why is [actual s-word] a bad word?"
Lauren has also picked up on context as a concept at what feels like a pretty early age. Someone on the playground was apparently using an inappropriate word that also happens to be part of the name of a famous national sporting-goods store. So she asked me at home one night, pretty smartly, why that was a "bad word." I explained that it's a word that people use in an ugly way to refer to a body part. Because she is who she is, she asked which body part, so I told her it was an inappropriate way to refer to someone's penis, which is private. She thought for a few moments, then said succinctly something along the lines of "That's really weird that it could be a bad word: it's not like the name of that store is 'Penis Sporting Goods.'"
Luckily, we moved on from that discussion to something equally puzzling or hilarious. While Allison and I have had some good laughs about these conversations, I realize that I am sincerely thankful to have children who think (and maybe worry a little) about how powerful their words are. One of the points of emphasis in my English classes is the importance of measuring our words. Early in the year, I invite them all to remember a time in their lives that they felt most hurt. After giving them a few moments, I take a kind of straw poll to see how many thought of a time that they felt physical hurt. Those numbers always pale in comparison to the ones who indicate that they remember being hurt by non-physical things. Grief and hurtful words outweigh physical pain for most of us when we conceive of painful memories. I'm thankful that my own children are already grappling with the weight of words and how they use them. I hope their mindfulness will remind me to use my own words to build and affirm and love as a parent, partner, friend, and teacher to those in my life.