Words can injure. We all know this. Like me, I am sure you’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends of nasty language, spoken or written. In light of recent events, perhaps an examination of how we talk to each other, and how we teach our children to talk to others, is in order. Small steps.
Something that happened with my daughter prompted me to examine the words she chooses, but more important, the words I choose. She came home from school with a note from her teacher one day this week. Apparently, she had used some inappropriate language towards another student, then lied about it. A big double no. So her teacher let us know. Always one to assume the best of my otherwise angel of a child, I immediately imagined the possibility that the other kid deserved it. As I snapped back into reality, I knew what she said wasn’t right. But I was conflicted about how big of a deal we needed to make of it. (It sparked quite a conversation with plenty of strong opinions on my blog’s Facebook page.)
She told a boy in her Kindergarten class to “Shut up.” This was the second such instance in the past few months. Making it worse, when her teacher asked her if she had said it, she denied it. “Shut up” isn’t nice. We don’t condone it. We don’t say it. Or do we? As we sat at the dinner table, I asked her where she heard that from. You can imagine my surprise when she pointed at me. I felt like the dad in the old anti-drug PSA from the 1980′s. “I learned it from watching you, dad.” I was a little horrified. Turns out, she’s right. I do say it. So does my wife. We say it in jest, as a colloquial replacement for, “Get out of here.”
It’s ironic when you consider that a reformed potty mouth like myself no longer swears. At least, I don’t in front of my daughter. I made it a point to fix that before she was born. My wife and I try our best to speak nicely to each other when our daughter is around, especially in times of stress. I don’t even like to say “because I said so” to her when she demands a reason for something. I feel THAT is a mean and dismissive thing to say to someone, especially a child who is watching and absorbing your every move. Yet, “shut up” somehow slipped through the cracks.
That’s no excuse.
In this age of anti-bullying measures in schools, “shut up” is one of the new bad words. “Retarded” and “gay” also come to mind. Rightfully so. Those words are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, when used in a derogatory tone. “Shut up” should be the same. So shame on me. Originally I thought perhaps the note home, and the subsequent apology letter that my daughter had to write, was a bit much. On top of that, we didn’t allow her any television or dessert that night. In retrospect, the punishment fits the crime. (Perhaps I should be the one writing an apology letter.)
After all, who wants to live in a society where we’re all telling each other to “shut up?” (Some may argue we already do. And I wouldn’t disagree.) On Sunday night, in his remarks to the people of Newtown, President Obama said something that really resonated with me. “This is our first task: caring for our children. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.” There will be plenty of time for debates on gun control, mental health, school security, and everything else. All of those will resolve themselves, or not, over time. For now, what we can do, how we can care for our children, is set a better example. It starts with not calling each other names because we disagree. Not generalizing about an entire group because of the actions of one or a few. Not judging one for one’s beliefs.
We need to listen to each other more, and stop feeling the need to win every argument. I’m going to listen to my daughter, who with her cry of “shut up” in school was telling me I need to choose my words better. Who am I to tell her that “hate” isn’t a nice word when you’re talking about Brussels sprouts, or that we don’t call someone or something “stupid,” when I’m sarcastically telling her mom to shut up five minutes later?
Violence can take many forms. We’ve seen the worst of it recently. When violence takes the form of ugly words, especially at a young age, we – I – need to stop and think before we speak. This is something we can do now. And it’s so easy.
Justin is a husband, dad, and writer who tries to use as many nice words as possible when he blogs at Daddy Knows Less.