Talking to Children About Gendered Slurs

'Bitch- felted wristband' photo (c) 2007, Jera - license:

Yesterday I wrote about a confrontation I had with a woman I now consider to be a former friend.  What I omitted from that post is the fact that our initial confrontation happened over the phone, while my children were in the room.  They were watching television quietly when I first started talking, but as my voice began to rise with anger, my oldest, Destruction began to listen to what I was saying.  I have taught my children many lessons over the years, but I have made a point of stressing to them that we are a family and no matter what, we always need to stand up for each other and stick together.  I know that for me, our family has always been a shelter from the storm, and I hope that it will always be that way for our children.

As he listened to my angry responses to being called a liar, even as I explained in detail my life, Destruction became angry.  There are very few things that I am certain of in this life, but I know without doubt that my family loves me, as I do them.  In frustration, he got up and stood in front of me and said “don’t listen to that bitch mom, you’re not a liar”.  I asked him to sit down and mind his own business for now.  After dealing with the horrid woman and making a decision not to interact with her anymore, I knew that I had to talk to my child about his use of a gendered slur.

This was a difficult conversation for me to initiate with Destruction, because I know that in his mind, what he said was a response to what he felt quite rightly was an unfair attack against my person. Having been a partial carer for me since the age of 5, he knows first hand my struggles.  He has personally seen the various times which I pushed myself to rise above and the consequences.  He gave up playing ball hockey, when he realized that the rink was not accessible for me.  I tried to hide the pain of having to stand and watch him play in the cold, but he saw through it anyway.  He has seen my frustration trying to negotiate a town which is most decidedly not accessible.  The irony of course is that my attacker owns a diner, which is not accessible because it is to narrow and does not have an automatic door opener. I can just imagine the state of the bathroom. Is it really any wonder that a woman who would run a business that is not accessible, could not wrap her mind around the need for a mobility aid?

When Destruction got home from school, I sat him down to talk about the use of the word bitch.  I began by letting him know that I loved him dearly and would always love him, and I told him that I know that he acted out of love.  This fact means that he acted out of the purest of intentions, but unfortunately, as well all know, intent does not erase harm.  Destruction is a very thoughtful child and in many instances, he has shown the courage of his convictions, and has offered great insights in our conversations.  I told him that what we say in anger, often reveals the truth about how we feel.  If we reach for an ism to attack, we are relying on our unearned privilege to reduce another and this is never an appropriate action.  I asked him how he would feel if he had upset someone, and they called him the n word.  He responded that he would be angry, and so I pointed out that what he did to that horrid woman is really not any different.

He was quiet for a few moments thinking over what I said. He asked what is acceptable to say and I then gave him a list of non gendered things he could say.  Obviously, I don’t approve of my 11 year old son swearing, but I am a realist and know that he does anyway, outside of my presence when he is angry.  If he is going to go down that road, I prefer that he not engage in an ism to express his rage at whatever the situation may be.

I know that I have made my own slips in rage and said things that I am not proud of.  It’s so easy to grab onto whatever privilege you have to hurt someone.  I think that this is something all socially conscious people have done.  Words hold such power and once they pass your lips, you can never take it back.  Some things once said, are so unforgivable that no matter how genuinely sorry you may feel, or the apology you may offer, the relationship will inevitably be ruined beyond repair. In the process, you will have committed an act of verbal violence against another.

I know that Destruction took my words to heart.  He has always been sensitive about treating others fairly – much more than I was at his age.  I think that yesterday he learned that intent is not magic, which is a lesson that many adults have trouble wrapping their minds around.  We don’t have to like someone to respect their basic human rights.  Just because a marginalized person is an asshole, does not mean that we have to debase them.  We can counter the behaviour of an ass simply by calling them an ass. One of the amazing things about the english language is that we have so many options for expressing ourselves.  There really is no justification for using a slur, or any other debasing language.

I am proud of my son.  He listened thoughtfully and unlike many that I have spoken to about this issue, he did not get defensive, or claim for a moment that it is a hardship not to use a specific word.  He accepted that he made a mistake and to think more carefully before speaking in the future, and that is all we can ask of anyone. My boy is not perfect, and neither am I for that matter,  but I know that his warm heart will help him to keep this promise. 

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