A few weeks ago, I went out to dinner at a local restaurant, and I happened to run into one of the owners on my way out the door. I’m friends with the owners, so I stopped to chat for a minute. She (I’ll call her “Susan” for the purpose of this story) has a young son (“James”), and somehow, the topic of language came up. We were discussing cuss words and the process of teaching kids to navigate language and learn what sort of language is appropriate in which settings.
“It’s fine if James says ‘fuck’ at home,” Susan said. “But not stupid. That’s not a nice word. We don’t say that word. Ever.”
Gentle readers, my little black heart briefly turned bright red with delight. She went on to list all of the other ableist language they don’t use at home, and how they explained to James that it wasn’t ok; not least because they have family members with disabilities, so James actually interacts regularly with the people those words are weaponized against.
I like that, from the start, Susan and her husband are teaching James that words mean things, and that they can be dangerous. They’ve told James that when he’s mad at someone and is tempted to use one of those words, or he wants to describe something with one of them, he should think about what he’s trying to express. And they’ve told him to speak out when he doesn’t like the way someone else is talking, which has apparently led to some interesting playground interactions, with James telling kids that “our family doesn’t use that word!”
I’ve interacted with James a few times and I always really enjoy it, and I realized that this is one of the reasons why. He chooses his language carefully and thoughtfully, far more so than other people, and he’s very good at describing things accurately. And he’s one of the few people I can comfortably be around in part because I know that he’s not going to be parroting exclusionary language around me because he’s learned it from his parents or school friends.
Interactions like this give me hope for the next generation, even though I know it’s an uphill battle.