It doesn’t matter how you mean them, or if you’re joking, these common phrases may be hurting our kids.
In most families, there’s a list of “banned words” that the kids aren’t allowed to say. Swear words, potty talk, or phrases like “shut up” are often shushed by moms and dads. Some kids can’t say the word “hate” – even if it’s about spinach!
But today, as small towns give way to a global community, it’s more important than ever that our kids understand how profoundly the words they choose can affect others – and themselves. And it’s time, as parents, that our list of “banned words” evolves, too.
Most parents have similar hopes for the values their kids grow into: Compassion, empathy, and acceptance of people’s differences. Most parents don’t want to raise a bully. But in order to teach those, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, too, and ban these common phrases and words from our homes.
1. “Be a man.”
See also: Man up, sack up, nut up.
This phrase such a huge part of how we were raised, particularly if we played sports, that it’s been a hard habit to break.
But what are we trying to teach when we tell a kid to man up? We want him to be strong, we want him to feel a sense of internal resilience, and we don’t want him to give up. These are features we attribute to men we admire and are good lessons for kids to learn. But when we associate those qualities only with masculinity, aren’t we teaching our kids that girls can’t be strong?
The deeper problem is that “manning up” is also synonymous with pushing down your feelings. Denying an urge to cry or show “softer” emotions, or keeping hurt feelings locked up inside is harmful to everyone – not just kids.
This phrase also contradicts our mission as parents when we ask our kids to talk to us about what’s bothering them. You can’t tell a kid, “You can come to me with any problem,” while also telling him to sack up when he’s upset. How can they trust us with their feelings when we’ve told them their emotions make them less of a man?
Beyond that, telling a kid to “man up” doesn’t actually teach him any skills for how to cope with his emotions or fears.
Try instead: In sports, or when facing a challenge, tell your kid, “I believe you can try harder” or “I know you’re hurt, but I think you’ll be very proud of yourself at the end of the game if you get back out there and help out your team.”
If your kid is whining or fake-crying, try saying, “Please don’t whine, it doesn’t help me understand you. Can you talk in a big-kid voice so we can talk about what’s wrong?”
2. “I’m so fat.”
See also: You’re fat, I feel fat, I’m going to get fat, that kid is fat.
As aging people who haven’t always had great relationships with our bodies, we both know how hard it is to not make negative comments about our appearances. But when you’re a parent, the way you talk about your body teaches your kid how to feel about his or hers.
Studies have shown that no matter your intentions, telling a child they are fat does not empower them to be healthier. Just the opposite, in fact. In this study, young girls who were told they were fat were more likely to be obese when they grew up. If your objective is to help you child live a healthier life, telling them they’re fat or overweight is not going to solve that problem. There’s no reason to do damage to their self-esteem. Focus on health, leave body size out of it. Yours and theirs.
Try instead: Dr. Lisa Kaplin, a psychologist and mother, explains her own strategy: “I have a 17-year-old girl who is bombarded with crazy messages about food, exercise, health, and weight. Instead of talking about appearance we talk about feeling strong and powerful. We talk about being comfortable in our own skin by wearing clothes that feel comfortable, exercising for strength and health, and eating for enjoyment and to be healthy.”
If your child comes to you and says he or she feels fat, Dr. Kaplin suggests: “Ask them to talk about how they feel versus how they look. ‘Do you feel energetic, happy, healthy, strong, powerful, flexible?’ Even if they say, ‘I feel fat’, ask them what that feels like and move it away from appearance and more to the physical experience of their body. When we focus on appearance we are teaching kids to disconnect from their bodies and connect to a mirror. That will never lead to feeling good about themselves.”
3. “That’s for girls”
See also: That’s for boys.
There aren’t really toys and games that are just for girls or just for boys. The concept that dolls or ponies are for girls, and trucks and erector sets are for boys is outdated and damaging to our kids.
Be the parent who accepts their kids’ interests how they are, sit down and play whatever makes them happy, and defend them when someone tries to undermine their sense of identity.
Try instead: Say, “There’s no such thing as a girl’s toy or a boy’s toy! Anything you like is good for you.”
4. “That’s gay.”
See also: He’s such a f*g, don’t be a sissy, or any other slang for LGBTQ folks.
We hope no parents are still saying this, but if you are, let’s be clear that you’re teaching your kids to be homophobic. It doesn’t matter if you’re joking or “don’t mean it that way”, you’re telling your kid that gayness is weird, bad, or freakish.
Even if you assume your kid isn’t going to be gay (we don’t know how you’d know that, of course), your kids are going to know LGBTQ people in their lives. If you want to model compassion, love, and acceptance, you simply cannot have any anti-gay slang in your house.
That means being the uncool parent who steps in and says, “That’s not cool. We don’t use homophobic language in our house, no matter how you think you mean it” when our kids’ friends are talking this way.
Try instead: Tell your child to be more specific about what they’re saying, in a way that doesn’t harm other people.
Suggest saying, “That sucks” or “That’s ridiculous” if they just mean something is bad. If they’re actually singling out kids who are gay, or whom they think are gay, then you’ve got some serious intervening to do to help them understand the consequence of bullying, and possibly even hate speech.
As Rosalind Wiseman, author of the essential book about boys’ social lives, Masterminds and Wingmen, explains, “You need to make them aware that they may have close friends, guys who they may deeply respect and like, who are terrified to reveal their truth (p207).” All of our kids need to know that no matter what their intention is when they’re using the word “f*g” or saying “gay” as a pejorative, they are not upholding anybody’s dignity. They are doing harm.
Note: “That’s lame” is NOT an okay substitute for “That’s so gay”. All you’re doing there is swapping out anti-LGBTQ language for ableist language by making disabled folks the butt of the joke.
5. “What a slut” or “Permanent virgin”
See also: “She’s a whore” or “He’s dating his right hand”, etc.
These two only seem antithetical; they’re two ends of a whole spectrum of shaming people for their sex lives, and it’s all ugly and in bad taste. Because sex is such a sensitive issue, especially for teenagers, any place on that spectrum can be the wrong place if an insult needs it to be. Boys in particular like to make fun of each other for masturbating, as though there are boys who don’t. Most often, sex insults tend to gender along the old, predictable double-standard lines. Boys are shamed for supposedly not having enough sex, girls are shamed for supposedly having too much. Nobody can explain how the math on that is supposed to work.
Try instead: “He/she does some messed-up stuff.” Lord knows there’s a world of dubious and inappropriate sexual behaviors out there, irresponsible, aggressive, self-loathing, and more.
Kids might think that some of their peers are making bad choices, and you want them to be able to talk to you about how they feel about these things. But it’s important to focus on how those choices and actions may harm others, as opposed to making statements about the person’s worth as a human being. Remind your kids that a person’s body belongs solely to them, and none of us have a right to judge them for why they choose to do with it.
6. “That’s ghetto”
See also: Thug, ratchet, and white kids using the “N-word” as casual language
We are two white people, so we can only write from a white perspective, directed at white parents.
But… no. White parents: Your kids shouldn’t be using the N-word at all. Not in casual language (“What’s up my N*gga?”), and obviously not as a racial slur. We know this is a complicated issue. If your kid has friends who are Black who are comfortable with this, we aren’t going to argue that he or she shouldn’t us this term with those pals. However, it’s crucial that you point out to your kid that even though one of his friends may be cool with it, that doesn’t give him a free pass to use the N-word as he or she pleases.
Originally used as a reference to neighborhoods where members of a minority group reside — mostly due to social, political or economic pressure — the term “ghetto” has since become a racist and classist pejorative.
In reality, only people who have lived in these areas can really say what’s “ghetto” and what’s not. But that’s not what usually happens. Instead, “ghetto” has become an adjective used to negatively judge any number of things, from outfits to run-down facilities. In common media tropes, “ghetto” is also associated with black people and their cultural expressions, including braids, gold hoop earrings and rap music. The term has largely become synonymous with being cheap, substandard, undesirable and, yes, black.
Words like this aren’t a joke. People’s lives aren’t to be equated with something you think is nasty.
Clifton also offers context on the word “thug”:
Many decades ago, the word “thug” referenced people who engaged in organized crime. But in more recent years, especially in the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin and even Brown, many whites and others dismissively use the word to describe young, black people — especially black men — implying that they’re violent, irrational and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
It’s important to note that although the word stemmed from organized crime, it is almost never used in reference to the Ku Klux Klan or the bankers on Wall Street, individuals who effectively brought the economy to a grinding halt while pilfering money from poor and working-class taxpayers.”
Try instead: Ask your child what they’re trying to say. Are they trying to say “criminal”? If so, be more specific. If someone’s a criminal, call them a criminal. Explain that “thug” is a word that’s been used to harm people of color, and that it’s just not the right word.
If your kid is making an observation about a kid’s physical appearance, such as race, style of dress, or mannerisms, then it’s time to sit down and explain the concepts of prejudice and racism, and ask your child to think about what pre-conceived notions he or she is bringing to their judgement of a person who probably isn’t actually a criminal at all. Tell them that they can make a choice to push aside their assumptions and prejudices, and break a very damaging cycle of oppression.
This list is far from exhaustive. What we really want our kids to know is that what they say matters. Explain to your kid that regardless of his or her intention, if they’re using words that can harm others, their intention really doesn’t matter much to the people they’re hurting. They may indeed have harmless, even kind intent, but the only way people will see that is if they use kind language.
Our kids could very well be the generation that fully obliterates systematic racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia. But they won’t do that without our guidance.
More by Noah Brand
Lead photo: Flickr/Melissa Wiese
Body photo: Flickr/Albie Girl