In my continuing discussion about parenting for tolerance, I explore words, power, and their effect on developing children.
WORDS HAVE POWER: As witches, neo-pagans, spiritualists, heathens, druids or simply people who believe that we are affected by the unseen as well as the seen, we know words have power. It is “The Secret,”[i] after all. What you think, what you say comes into being. Watching what I say, what my husband-priest says, what my roommate says, what my son says is part of my mission to confront racism, gender biases, and homophobia. Further, how I talk to myself and those beloveds closest to me is a living example of how my son should talk to himself. Now there are new scientific studies that have proven, yet again, that words can empower or damage children’s behavior and self-esteem.
Words have Power When Children Use Them
When we really listen to what our children say, natural opportunities to address gender bias, homophobia, privilege, and inequality will spring forward.
Most recently this cropped up around gender bias and race. My son was talking about a male classmate and said that his friend was a “man whore.” I immediately challenged this.
[Lydia]“Are you saying that by default only women can be whores?”
“No,” he said, “I mean he sleeps with people indiscriminately.”
[Lydia]“Then why say ‘man-whore’? Why not just say whore to reference anyone who indiscriminately sleeps with people? Why include ‘man’ as a quantifier?”
I get the teenage response for anything they have no comeback for, a shoulder shrug. Any good mother-priestess knows you forge ahead anyway.
[Lydia]“How many people do you have to sleep with before you’re a whore? I mean, is it possible to have lots of partners for the joy of sexual exploration and NOT be a whore? What is a whore, really?”
This dinner conversation lead to a thorough discussion about sleeping around and how our son defines whore. (He decided that if they were not responsible, did not use protection and/or were not sensitive to the feelings of the partner(s) they had and/or were utilizing sex as a drug or a type of escape, then the person could be considered a whore regardless of gender or sexual orientation.) We also touched on the idea that often gay men are classified as whores or loose simply because they are gay and how that is categorically a homophobic idea.
My engagements have also been around words like “pussy” and “wuss.” These words are often utilized to describe a man or boy who isn’t “manly enough” and simultaneously suggests to be unmanly is to be girly, which is somehow not as good as being a man. I recently told Sam that when you call a boy a pussy you were really suggesting that they have a vagina, which was just silly unless they are transgendered and do actually have a vagina. When that is the case, then really it is a statement of fact and not an insult. Besides, women give birth[ii] and are physically made for that purpose. To suggest that a man isn’t tough enough by calling them a pussy is an insult to women in general.
Having Nathaniel live with us has allowed us to explore words that are racist and generalizing. Recently, Sam was talking about not liking “ghetto” music because all ghetto music is about gangs, drugs, prostitutes and money. I confronted this, asking if that wasn’t a racist statement. I pointed out that typically using words like “all” and making generalizations based upon stereotypes typically creates racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive language.
Sam replied, “What I said wasn’t racist, right bro?”
The question was directed at Nathan who shrugged and said, “Yea, bro, it kind of is. Not all ‘ghetto’ music is black, not all ‘ghetto’ music is about drugs and guns and prostitutes. Not all ‘ghetto’ music is about gangs either. It comes round to racism because you said ‘all,’ and without saying it, everyone here knew you meant ‘Black’ music, not ‘Ghetto.’ After all, you assumed that ghetto, rap, and black can be interchangeably used. Doesn’t that mean you think all black people must like rap and no black people can like heavy metal like you do?”
My son was suitably shocked. This lead to a lively discussion around racism and assumptions based on race or where someone lives.
The other thing we have been confronting is sixteen-year-old white privilege. We have been having discussions around ideas that include statements that Sam will make because his skin color and being born to white privilege leads him to make those statements.
“If you want to have an education, you can have one. If you don’t get an education, it is just because you are too lazy.”
“If someone doesn’t want to end up in jail, then they should CHOOSE to do other things. You only end up in jail if you choose to do break the law.”
“If you don’t want to be bullied, then don’t be wussy and people won’t bully you.”
Each of the above statements reflects a white male privilege that my son is unaware he retains. In his insulated suburban world, everyone gets an education, and if they don’t it has more to do with the person in question than it does our system of education.
You only end up in jail if you break the law. There are no innocent people in jail. There are no people in jail who get caught up in a lifestyle created by the environment they have no choice to live in.
People are only bullied because they haven’t developed an attitude that keeps bullies away. Of course, Sam is nearly six feet tall at sixteen. He is white. He is obviously well cared for. He is as far away from bearing and presentation of a victim as one can get because money and privilege have afforded him this life. Further, he lives in places where violence is less likely to erupt. But, people, in his view, only get bullied because they haven’t “butched-up.”
Each of these statements is a chance to discuss the socio-economic impact that privilege has upon how my son views the world and other human beings in it. As we talk about potential reasons someone might wrongfully go to jail, why someone might not get an education, and why being “butch” has little to do with violence, we open Sam’s eyes to the realization that life as he experiences it and views it is not the same for everyone. In time, this understanding breeds tolerance and empathy and will lead my son to be the Champion I have empowered him to be.
Some may argue that I am being overly sensitive to word issues. After all, boys call each other names all the time and don’t really think much about it. But words have power.[iii] What we say to our children can lift them up or tear them down, can leave them with impressions that follow them for the rest of their lives. Then when they say racist, homophobic, gender biased or intolerant things, it has a lasting effect upon them. By calling their attention to the full meaning of their words, empowering them to define what they mean, and creating within them the critical thinking skills they need to interrogate the reality they create with their words, we are helping them develop a powerful skill that will uplift themselves and others.[iv]
Next time we will talk about empowering the voice of your child when they make those first tentative steps forward. I call this recognizing the Champion.
[i]The Secret; Rhonda Burn; website http://thesecret.tv/
[ii] Yes, these guys are Christians, and no, Christianity isn’t he point. The point would be that these are two guys who got a taste of what labor and delivery felt like and videotaped their humiliation. I showed this to my son to prove my point.
[iii] Parents’ Harsh Words Might Make Teen Behavior Worse; Nancy Shute; National Public Radio; http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/09/04/218972701/parents-harsh-words-might-make-teen-behaviors-worse
[iv] A topic for future in-depth discussion is how co-parents talk to each other. If we call our mates or co-parent(s) stupid or dumb or use demeaning gendered language against them, we are showing our children how much we value that person’s gender identification and how little we value them spirituality. My litmus test is always, “Would I talk to the God or Goddess this way?” If I wouldn’t, I have to wonder what I think I am doing by talking to humans that way.