There are very few thing that I’m certain of when it comes to this parenting thing. One thing I know for sure is that words matter. And I don’t just mean that the sticks and stones poem is completely inaccurate (which it is). Rather, words can do more much more than hurt or help. Words can shape the way our children look at the world and how they fit into it.
The thing is, it’s not just the words we pick out carefully when having a pre-meditated talk with our kids. It’s the language that rolls off our tongues when we think they’re not listening, and when we don’t have time to think at all. What values do we want to impart on our children with the words we use? Do we want to use our words to reinforce the status quo, or do we employ language that can shatter it and can expect more from our world?
I’m pregnant with my second baby and my son has gotten in the habit of kissing my belly and saying “hi baby.” It’s just about the cutest thing on earth. I’m pretty sure, however, that at 1.5 he doesn’t really understand what’s happening with our family. Last week he lifted his shirt up and touched his own belly and said baby a couple times. Over the weekend my husband was without a shirt and my son went over and kissed his belly. It appears he thinks baby is a synonym for tummy, and it’s still adorable.
He has also started identifying his “babas” after he nurses. These moments have been amusing to me but also interesting and important to my parenting. The first time he referred to his “babas” I replied by saying, “those aren’t quite the same thing buddy because boys don’t normally have babas.” My own words echoed in my mind. Normally. I corrected myself. “I mean, you don’t have babas. Mama has babas.”
I want the language I use with my son to be inclusive. I hope that he’ll hear the words I use and hear love and acceptance rather than judgement or privilege. But I am privileged, and I judge far too often, so I mess up. In this moment he got to see me mess up and revise. I hope sometimes he’ll see me mess it up, get called on it by someone else, and make a similar revision to the words I choose. My son doesn’t know what transgender means. He doesn’t know that some boys do share more of my anatomy more than his. In fact, I’m not sure whether he really knows that some of his friends are boys and others are girls. Yet in these moments that seem tiny and subtle, I’m priming him to reject our society’s obsession with gender norms and expectations. His dad and I will buy him dolls if those are the toys he prefers. We’ll teach him to cook, expose him to art, and take him to ballet if he wants to do that instead of soccer. The seemingly small tweaks in language that we make right now are the developmental springboard to future conversations and experiences.
Now when my son says baby as he points to his belly or baba when he points to his chest I praise his ability to make connections between my body and his. Instead of implying that there’s something abnormal about a man who has breasts or a uterus I simply state the facts. You don’t have babas, I do. There’s not a baby in your belly, but there’s one in mine. Maybe I’ll say, “your daddy doesn’t have a baby in there,” or even, “most daddies don’t have babies in their bellies.” But normally, people just have the bodies they’re born with, and that doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone.
Recently I’ve begun to consciously avoid telling my son how smart he is. It’s not that I don’t want him to think he’s smart, I just want him to value things other than what our society traditionally views as intelligence. More than being smart, I value problem solving, perseverance, and working hard, just like I value people more than I value their gender or their anatomy. Some people say that words are just words, and we shouldn’t be so sensitive about them. I’ve seen what words can do to lift a person up, tear them down, or promote a change in their thinking that leads to an immeasurable ripple. It’s never to early or too late to choose the words that help convey the values we hold dear.