August 10, 2009

All You Need are (Positive) Words

Did anyone hear the segment on Talk of the Nation (NPR) a few weeks back about the prolific use (particularly in middle schoolers) of the phrase, “That’s so gay,” and it’s implications on gay kids, society, etc.? It reminded me of a recent conversation my husband had with a seven year old neighbor girl who asked, “Was Ava adopted?” And then concluded, “So, her mom didn’t want her?”

Being only seven, we know the girl meant no harm by the question/comment. But it was what is commonly referred to as a “teachable moment” which got me thinking. Not only was it a teachable moment for the seven year old, but one for us as well.

As I thought about how to help arm Ava with a response—one that she’s comfortable with—to these types of comments, I also thought about how prior to having a child, I would have never thought to talk with my children about the appropriate choice of words when asking potentially sensitive questions. Or how phrases (like, “that’s so gay”) can be interpreted by some.

We as parents have a responsibility to help our kids navigate though language and word choice, and that becomes especially apparent as an adoptive parent. I am not na├»ve, I don’t think we can control everything our kids say—nor should we try—but we are obligated to ensure they understand the implications of the words they choose, whether you’re an adoptive parent or not.

There are a lot of adoption resources out there (especially on the web) that list what’s considered “positive adoption language.” While it is important to be aware of this language and use it—especially as an adoptive parent; sometimes we don’t get it right either!—it is also important to have open and honest discussions with your child(ren), whether they were adopted or not, to help them understand these phrases, what they mean, why/how they can be hurtful, etc.

I still get really inappropriately worded questions asked of me, about Ava’s adoption, from adults. It’s amazing to me some of the things that come out of people’s mouths, so how can we expect our children to phrase things respectfully and appropriately?

It all starts with awareness. Sometimes people have no idea how their questions or comments are perceived. I realize that, and I know most people mean no harm by their questions. But I’m also surprised. If we just take half a second to think before speaking sometimes, we might realize how a particular question could be perceived by—and be hurtful to—the person being asked.

It’s our job—not just as adoptive parents, but as parents and educators, in general—to help people, especially children, understand their word choice. True, part of this is due to the fact that we’ve become so “P.C.” about everything; in some cases I think we’ve taken it to the extreme.

But when it comes to word choice that can have a profoundly negative impact on another human being, we need to be more sensitive. Ah, those little life lessons.

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