words

I was a child of the 80s and a teen of the 90s. (If you’re wondering, I’m 30.) I guess each generation has its own set of choice words, like “groovy” as far back as the 60s. I absolutely loved growing up in the 90s and will be a Pearl Jam fan for life, but it wasn’t until I had kids that I started thinking about my 90s vocabulary.

In elementary school, middle school, and even high school, it was totally normal to use words like “retarded” and “gay” to describe anything abnormal, lame, distasteful, ridiculous, stupid, and the list goes on. I’m talking about day-to-day life and the words I used without even thinking. Even into my adult life, I still let the words slip. Old habits die hard, especially with popular words from your generation.

If my day was a total clusterfuck, and the line at the gas station was out the door, I’d describe it as “retarded.” If I hated an old sweater I found in my closet, I’d say it looked “gay.” Of course, there wasn’t hate in my heart when I was saying these words, and for years, I didn’t think anything of it. Also, to prove my generational point, I’ve heard most of my friends and husband say these words too.

A close friend of mine has a sister who is gay and married. His sister is awesome and also happens to have a great sense of humor. As he tells it, she started a friendly confrontation about his casual use of the word “gay.”

He said something along the lines of, “Ugh, my computer is running slow. GAY!”

She bantered back something like, “And how is your computer gay exactly? Is it sexually attracted to other computers of the same model?”

My friend laughed and said, “No, of course not. I just mean that my computer is shitty and lame and… Well, this is awkward.”

So, that’s an example of a healthy family engaging in a friendly confrontation about the misuse of the word “gay.” Contrary to popular belief, calling something gay shouldn’t mean that it is shitty and lame. For many people I know, a word like this is simply an afterthought and something that you might say when you’re frustrated.

Now that I’m a grownup and have two kids, I’m questioning everything I do—especially as my toddler is learning to talk. I’m not too strict about cutting out profanity altogether because it’s bound to happen, but I find words like “retarded” and “gay” to be even more troubling.

For one thing, I can now empathize (though I definitely don’t fully understand) with what it might be like to have a child with a disability. Thinking of what some parents have to go through breaks my heart. All parents can universally agree how difficult it is to watch their child struggle, whether they have a disability or not.

I can’t even imagine a scenario in the future where I actually let the word “retarded” slip, and my son repeats it in front of a special needs student in his class at school. Actually, I can. Just thinking about how another vulnerable kid might feel when a word like that is tossed around in exchange for “stupid” or “lame” gets me all weepy. I’d rather my kid curse like a sailor and get detention for it than unintentionally wound another kid with his words.

At the same time, I think this is a lot more than just misusing hurtful words. I so desperately want to help both of my sons develop empathy, especially when it comes to kids that are different from them and could potentially be bullied—for being gay or disabled or what have you. Also, I’m not overlooking the possibility that one of my sons might be gay and would be on the receiving end of the bullying.

I don’t remember ever bullying anyone in high school, but I don’t remember standing up for kids being bullied either. Just as much as I plan to stop using these insensitive words in casual conversation, I also hope to give my kids the courage to connect with other kids “outside of the norm.”

In a way, talking about bullying when my kid is barely two years old seems strange since he hasn’t hit school age yet. But I don’t want any “triggers,” like these words, to become a part of his early conversation.

As for my son’s generation, I’m not sure what insensitive words might pop up that need to be addressed. Like I’ve already said, I used troubling words like “gay” and “retarded” for years without even thinking of it. Hopefully, many of these hurtful words can be made null and void to take away their sting and prevent them from being passed down to future generations.

(photo: Getty Images)