Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Hi, Carolyn: I found out from my 9-year-old son’s teacher today that he used the n-word with some of his classmates yesterday. This word isn’t ever used in my home, so I am confident he heard it somewhere else and used it out of ignorance instead of malice. So today I am having The Talk with him about why that word is so hurtful and harmful.
I went online for some resources for having this conversation with kids, and while there are plenty on race issues, there aren’t any really on use of The Word. What I did find were nuanced writings aimed at adult audiences or platitudes of colorblindness from white authors. I think I’ve come up with a good plan to put in kid-friendly terms what he’s really saying when he uses that word, but I still feel a little inadequate. If you have any suggestions on approaches, I’d be greatly appreciative!
THE Talk (Not That One, the Other One)
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I don’t think you need anyone’s doctoral thesis to get you through this. Just explain to him that people sometimes use mean or ugly words on others just to make themselves feel superior, and this is one of the ugliest, used against people of color. So not only is it essential for him not to use this word in particular, but it’s also important that he not stoop to name-calling in general just to feel important.
If he’s receptive, certainly do go beyond that to talk history, current culture and also values: You’re raising him to be a good person, presumably, so this is a fine time to talk about what exactly that means to you, especially if you open it up by asking what it means to him.
It’s also a good time to caution him against using words when he’s not fully aware of what they mean either literally or in context. In fact, this is where I suggest you start. Kids use shocking words, that’s what they do – and whenever they try out a new one within earshot of you, it can be very helpful to ask questions instead of just shutting them down: “Do you know what that word means?” Presumably, no. “What do you think it means?” Usually an interesting answer. “Well, this is what it really means. Is that something you want to keep saying?”
Re: The Word: I’ve used it once in my life. In second grade. I called someone that. He was white, as am I. (I went to a majority black school.) I had heard it on the playground, had no idea what it meant, but just that it was a bad thing to call someone. There’s a good chance your child doesn’t really know what he said.
Re: The Word: My brother came home in second grade using the word “dildo” as analogous to “jerk” or “idiot.” My mother did exactly that: “Do you know what that means?” She then unflinchingly gave him a second-grade-level explanation and closed with, “And that’s why it’s not a good idea to use words when you don’t understand what they mean.” His horrified reaction made it hugely apparent that was the most effective approach possible.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.