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Political Correctness, or How to Confuse Kids

August 16, 2011

I was at the playground with my three kids the other day and there were six swings:  two baby swings, two big kid swings, and two special needs swings.  My seven-year-old and three-year-old were swinging next to each other and my five-year-old wanted to join in.  The conversation went something like this:

“Mommy, can you help me get on a swing?”

“Both swings are taken, Scottie, but I’ll help you when it’s your turn.”

“I want to ride on that one, but I can’t get in.”

“Well, that’s a special needs swing.  It’s for kids who can’t use the regular ones.”

“You mean like a special treat?”

“No, not quite like that.  It means their bodies either can’t hold on or stay up on the big kid ones.”

“But what makes it special?”

“It’s made especially for them with all of those straps and buckles like a car seat so they can swing, but stay in it safely.”

“I’m special, too.  Pick me up and put me in it!”

“You are special, but in different ways.”

“Hey, that’s like on ‘The Incredibles.’  Dash says, ‘Everybody is special, which means no one is.'”

<stunned Mommy silence, followed by silent inner swearing>

(Crap, thanks a lot for that gem, Disney!)

“No, you ARE special, but ‘special needs’ means that some kids need more help doing things than other kids, so they put up swings like this to give them that kind of help.”

“Oh, you mean like the handicapped parking spaces at the store?”

<letting out a huge breath of relief that he gets it>

“Yes, Scottie, it’s EXACTLY like that.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that?…..Oh hey!! Robbie is off, can you push me on the regular one now?”


I shook my head as I pushed him on the swing and struggled over the whole issue of political correctness versus clear communication.  We have had the “teachable moments” talks many times with our kids, and I’m sure there will have to be many more before they truly get it.

I understand the intent behind political correctness, but I’m not sure I fully agree with how it hampers communication.  On the one hand, I don’t want anyone, especially any kid to ever feel hurt by a word slung in careless ignorance.  But on the other, why are we dumbing-down our language?

My own son was born with a physical defect called “pectus excavatum,” or “sunken chest.”  Due to some hurtful comments by kids I’d like to punch in the face, he doesn’t like to take his shirt off in public.  I’ve never been more grateful for any trend as I am for the rash guard shirts in the summer.

So I do know how important it is to teach kids to be aware of what words mean so they don’t hurt someone’s feelings.  However, I have seen my son voluntarily lift his shirt to show and explain to his friends what his chest looks like.  This usually comes after a real friend simply asks him about it.

There is a huge difference between a mean kid pointing and yelling, “EEWWWW!!  Look at Robbie’s chest!!  That’s GROSS!!” and a friend asking, “Whoa!  I tagged you and felt your chest.  Does that feel weird to you, too?”

Neither scenario uses the now politically incorrect term “defect,” or “deformity,” but it hurts a lot more than if they had.

So I don’t know that hampering communication over individual words really makes much of a difference.  Sure, it makes it easier to spot the ignorant, but they show themselves pretty clearly without the vocabulary.  There will always be kids (and adults) who say and do things with the intent to hurt others.  We can take away the lexicon, but that doesn’t change those kinds of people.

The people who truly want to know more, either out of innocence or curiosity, end up tongue-tied like I was at the playground.  I used the word, “special” so much it lost its meaning, when simply saying “handicapped” would have communicated it clearly from the beginning.

Are we really doing our kids any favors by limiting their vocabulary?  Isn’t it possible to teach the politically incorrect terms as long as they understand how they can sometimes be potentially hurtful?  As a writer and a former English teacher, my love of language makes me want to provide my kids a limitless vocabulary.

We can take away every offensive word in the language, but mean kids will still find ways to be mean.  Whether they know the words or not doesn’t matter.  It’s how they are taught to be people that does.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Katie Mack permalink
    August 16, 2011 9:10 AM

    Intent is the key word here Stacey. Taking every avenue to explain to someone, adult or child, so they understand is the right thing to do even if it means explaining by using a word that may be politically incorrect. It actually gives you the opportunity to teach more then one lesson. Explaining the situation and the correct vocabulary to use in the future.

    I LOVE your last sentance “It’s how they are taught to be people…”. It does matter!

  2. August 16, 2011 10:13 AM

    Stacey – you did a great job covering the problem with current language. We have run into the same problem, and we just talked through it with what some might consider “inappropriate” language, and then explained the need to use better and less pejorative terms to ensure that folks were not singled out or hurt… I particularly liked the last line about how children “are taught to be people” being the important part.

  3. August 18, 2011 7:56 AM

    I think, to a certain degree, the words you use also depend upon the situation. Jonathon is considered “special needs”, but he’s not “handicapped” in the traditional sense of the word. Those swings are definitely for the “handicapped” kids. So in that case, “handicapped” is more appropriate, but how do you know? Especially when you have to think quickly to come up with an explanation for an impatient 5 year old?

    I really don’t know how we’ve managed to dodge this parenting bullet so far. But we have. And I know I am going to be anxious about it when the kids start asking questions I’m not sure how to answer. But I can just take to heart your last few sentences. The important thing is that we teach them how to be people, and that’s what counts.

    Fantastic article, Stace. Loved it!

  4. August 18, 2011 8:26 AM

    Thanks, all, for the comments and insight. I wish there was a way to limit the vocabulary of the mean people, but empower all of those with good intent to use words carefully, with understanding. I guess it’s the “all or nothing” mentality of political correctness that bugs me most.

    @Kim, I hope you continue to dodge this bullet for as long as possible!

  5. August 19, 2011 2:28 PM

    Loved reading your blog – a touchy subject, sure, but one that can’t be swept under the rug.
    We have a mutual friend, Shelly, who taught bible school with you this summer. She thinks we should connect…..

  6. August 19, 2011 3:44 PM

    Hi Evelyn!

    Welcome and thanks for reading. I’ll be checking you out online, too. Always love getting to know other bloggers. Please tell Shelly I said hello and thanks for the connection!

  7. August 19, 2011 4:56 PM

    Great! I’m following you on Twitter – I’m @organizingwithe

  8. August 19, 2011 6:32 PM

    Following you as well.

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