Written by: Meaghan Holek
I will never forget my mother's face when I described something as “stupid” for the first time (to her knowing). She froze in her tracks, her eyebrows furrowed and she told me to use another word. She told me that that word is spoken by people with poor attitudes. I had to agree, it stung to be called “stupid” in grade school by peers. I learned to remove that word from my vocabulary and use proper substitute phrases, like “that sucks” or “that is dumb” (because for some reason those were acceptable substitutes in my mother’s eyes).
As I entered the teaching world, usage of the “S word” was continuously shunned upon by my teaching mentors and fellow co-workers so naturally, I jumped on that bandwagon. I fell into the habit of acknowledging the word’s “negativity” to children who chose to use it even if there was no intention to hurt. I feared the word and its power so I had zero tolerance for it. I worked with children on finding other words or ways to express themselves instead.
So you can imagine how I felt when I heard the “S word” spoken at the lunch table inside of Camas Early Years Centre. I was setting up the nap beds when I heard it. Every single molecule in my body tightened and I looked over to see who said it and why.
A million or so questions started popping into my head: Was anyone hurt in the process? No. Was it being used to put anyone down? No. Did anyone else react like me? No. If I give my opinion on the word, am I giving the word power? Possibly. All my life, this word has possessed such power. Its consonants sound powerful, but people's reactions even more so. Was the object being described by definition actually stupid? Stupid is “having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense.” and no, the yogurt cup was not lacking intelligence or common sense. Is this child experimenting with this word? It seems like it. It was said quite playfully. Finally...Am I comfortable with letting this go? I think so, the others do not seem to care or notice. Why is this word such a problem for me? My mother. Why is this word such a problem for my mother?
Yesterday I finally asked her. Through video chat, she told me that her aunt (who raised her) did not accept the “S word” either, that it was a sign of disrespect. We laughed about it. My mother admitted it was much easier to banish the word than explain that it could be appropriate in some circumstances. What a powerful word!
It is a magical (and depending on the word, sometimes uncomfortable) experience to witness children exploring words and their power. There is a person in our program who frequently asks what the meaning of a word is if it is not familiar to her. I love her curiosity and
her drive to learn with zero shame of not knowing. It reminds me that these words are new to young children and while adults have a subjective but somewhat collective grasp on what words are acceptable and unacceptable, children are people simply experimenting with language in the early stage of their lives. One thing I do know is that children learn best by doing/playing/experimenting and I admire their risk-taking nature. In that moment at the lunch table, I cringed, I squirmed, and I spiralled into deep thought but in the end I just let the “S word” be. No humans were physically or emotionally hurt. Plus I didn't think the “because my mom said so!” argument would hold up in court!
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