Sometimes I think I live a sheltered life. I live in an area where the worst human misery manifests on my doorstep. It’s where the people live who are considered to be human garbage by much of society. In my professional work, I’ve seen a lot of different ways that human beings can be damaged, sometimes beyond repair. But it’s when I come into contact with privileged children that I am angered, shocked, and saddened in an unexpected way.
I dearly love these particular children. They are great kids with good hearts and affectionate dispositions. But as I drive them home, I cannot bear the verbal violence I am hearing from the back seat. It’s unrelenting and the worst of it is that they don’t even know what they are saying. It’s part of the everyday speech of these children and their friends.
The first thing I hear is, “What a fattie! You fattie.” I decide to ignore it. But it is repeated as an insult over and over again, like a mantra. Finally, I have to intervene. At this point, I’ve let it go on too long and I say something quite stupid, considering the audience:
“Do you hear what you are saying? Do you realize how size-ist that is?”
Let me mention that even my third year social work students rarely have heard the term “sizeism”, which refers to the marginalization of people based on their physical size. I don’t know why I said that. But I did.
Dead silence. All video games have now stopped. The children don’t say a word.
Finally, the 12 year old ventures, “What’s size-ist?”
I explain it.
“You’re kidding!” Incredulous.
“No, I’m afraid I’m not. It’s the same thing as being racist.”
“Even if I’m saying it to a video game?”
“Yes. A racist label is racism. A sizeist label is sizeism.”
At this point, I don’t know how to get out of this conversation, because it’s really not the right way to handle it.
The games start up again.
Then I hear, “You spaz.” “No, you’re a spaz.” “Stop being such a spaz.”
It goes on and on.
I can’t listen anymore.
“You children have no idea what you are saying with the words you use. They are so offensive. I have a very good young friend who is a spaz. She is spastic because she has cerebral palsy. You don’t even want to know how difficult her life is. She has had to have many surgeries to cut tendons on her limbs so that she spasms less. She can’t speak, she needs someone to take total care of her, and her only movements are spastic. So when you talk about being a spaz, you are talking about my friend and you are using this word as an insult.”
My partner gives me a warning look, lays her hand on my arm. She thinks I’ve gone overboard. Maybe I have. But I had to tell them, because they are so ignorant. What they are saying is considered part of everyday speech.
I have often heard the word “girl” used as an insult towards the boys. “Don’t be such a girl.” “You girl.” It’s said by adults around them.
How does this happen in such a privileged, educated setting? And why am I surprised?
Maybe that’s the real question. Why am I surprised?
I applaud you for speaking your mind. If you don’t call attention to it, the behavior will be repeated. It probably will be anyways – if you are the only one who says something,what’s stopping them? But at least you know that you tried.
Your example reminds me of a criminological theory, Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory. Offenders are shamed by the community, and then welcomed back into that community. You called attention to the behavior, but then you educated the children on why it was hurtful. As a community, we need to call attention to such insensitivity to cut the cycle.
I think that what you did was wonderful. Children learn from us and if we don’t correct them when they parrot language that we know to be harmful we are only encouraging such modes of thought. As a mother I have spent much time correcting the biased language of my son and his little friends. I cannot change the world but I can educate my children to treat everyone with respect.
I taught my 11-year old cousin the words looksism, ableism, discrimination, homophobia and maybe a couple others last weekend. If they know racism, they should know the other important words. Unfortunately most kids don’t have someone who will teach them. I’ve always thought kids can understand a lot more than we teach them in areas like this. And if they act that way it’s because enough people in their life accept it. So it’s good you said something and maybe made them think a little.
I have also noticed this very disturbing trend, especially among younger children, and I am on your side when it comes to calling attention to harmful language.
I also have done this with older people (friends of my 18-year-old sister, for example) and the problem I have encountered is that they often assume I am trying to act “smarter” than them because I won’t passively accept harmful language that has so permeated the English language. But I always hope that the mere shock of me calling them out will at least stick in their head.
It’s a fight worth making, I feel. I’m glad to see you feel the same.
What is clear is that the abusive verbal treatment these kids are dishing out is learned. Not in a formal way of course. We also try to maintain non-abusive language standard in our home. Things are not necessarily size-ist (confusing term) – they are just rude! Kids can understand rude or insulting and we call it that.
Now for my personal observation:
We have homeschooled for 12 years, and I can tell you that in most homeschooled peer groups there is little or none of this going on. This is a cold, hard fact, I have observed this over so many years and so many different groups that it is an undeniable fact.
Why? Here is my best shot at the reasons. Kids are learning this behaviour from other kids, and it is often the accepted norm or standard within their peer group. When parents are around to say its not acceptable, its stopped from becoming the norm. It is caught frequently, and early. In a kid-mediated peer group (ie classroom of 25-20 kids), there is no one to hear it and say this is not acceptable. It is accepted by the peer group. Teachers can intervene to stop physical abuse when they see it, but not the minutia of regular conversation. So if polite is the norm, kids stay polite, including to each other.
You are surprised because you are a good person who does not just take it for granted that “boys will be boys”, “children are cruel” or other nonsense and speaks up. Hurray you.
[From another un-cool parent. My other button is the constant drone of “Math is hard” to which I respond “No it isn’t. Walking was hard until you learned it but now it is natural.” ]