816 North Opinion

Susan Vollenweider: Power of words evolves with each generation

Remember when we began to think about how PC we were? When we made sure that everything we said was politically correct?

Did our email about the company picnic offend anyone? Was asking the women to bring food and the men to bring beverages sexist? Was planning the event for a Sunday offensive to Christians? The wisest also looked up word and phrase origins to make sure that they did not originate as a slander against anyone. All of this extra work in communication was tiring, but the resulting conversation opened people’s minds to the power of their words.

In a conversation one person speaks, one person listens and then responds. In this case the response was to cease using some words and expressions because they negatively distracted from our intended message. We swapped-out certain words for something more appropriate. The first pendulum swing was a bit extreme, but it got swinging. Crippled (swing) handicapped (swing) disabled (swing) physically challenged.

What a great opportunity to teach our kids that language will change over time — that it’s a natural, societal progression. But parents aren’t the only ones doing the teaching.

My kids suggested I change certain words like hooked-up to meet; to not describe myself as hot unless I put it in temperature context. They keep me hip to the lingo without rolling their eyes (too much) when I say things like, “hip to the lingo.” (In my defense, I believe that hip is poised for a comeback.)

Years ago I read a book with a mother character who talked to her kids in adult language, not baby talk or kid-speak. I thought this was brilliant, tucked it away in my brain vault and eventually rarely talked baby talk to my babies. I never dumbed down my language to smaller words when a beautiful, big one would do so much better. They learned to ask what words meant and now each of them has a lovely vocabulary.

(Shh, I’m not bragging. This is one of the few things I did totally right.)

But outside of our house, they hear other words. Ugly words. Offensive-on-so-many-levels-to-so-many-people words. I get it: They are kids, they want to try them out. They want to learn their power.

Oh, I’ll show them their power.

The use of these words will result in a mom-reaction like no other. To maintain my composed reputation, let’s go with, “I get very irate.” They might not know better the first time, but they know better the second.

And there’d better not be a second time.

Maybe my over-the-top, rant-and-rave method isn’t what the parenting pros suggest, but isn’t over-the-top and loud worth a try to teach our kids the power of words? It’s not the elder generations who will change society’s language; it’s the younger ones.

Recently 9-year-old Noah stopped me in the middle of an animated preventative vocabulary lesson about insults. In an allowable Do As I Say, Not As I Do moment, I was listing the ugliest of words, that, if he used them even once as an insult, would cause a reaction he would not like.

Yes, I was trying to scare him. Maybe not the wisest method, but effective.

“(Me, listing words from the section titled: Homosexuality Is Never, Ever to be Used as an Insult.)”

He laughed at me, “Mom, what are you talking about? A ‘pansy’ is a flower.”

In a conversation one person speaks, one person listens and then responds.

They are listening. They will respond. And language will change again.

What are we willing to do to make that happen?

Susan Vollenweider lives in Smithville. For more of her writing, go to thehistorychicks.com.