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White Knuckle Parenting: Jack Learns the R-word

Of all the words in the English language, the "r-word" is one of my top ten least favorite. Last week, one of my kids used it for the first time.

I curse in front of my kids. This is a conscious parenting choice that I have made. My intention is to teach my kids that so-called "bad" words are just words—the trick is figuring out when it is and isn't appropriate to say them. (My subsequent rule: It is not appropriate to say them if you are a child.) I am far more interested in teaching my children to use respectful language rather than enforcing arbitrary rules about what is a good word and what is a bad word.

That is why even though I am pretty lax about language, I prohibit the use of the r-word in my home. You know the word I mean—it's the one people use jokingly to make fun of others, to call them stupid, to imply that they are less than. It is the one that used to be a medical term and is now just pejorative. It is the one used to make fun of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is not, as far as I am concerned, a part of respectful language.

I haven't used the word in a pejorative sense since I was a teenager and read an article written by a girl whose brother was intellectually disabled. Even though I wasn't a terribly thoughtful kid, I was able to hear her when she wrote that the word hurt her deeply because it was aimed at her brother. Imagining how she—and the people with disabilities themselves—must feel upon hearing that word, I removed it from my lexicon.

Years later I am raising my almost 10-year-old son Jack to be a proud autistic young man. Hearing the r-word is even more cutting than it was before. Happily, my kids haven't run into the word often so I hadn't had to confront it with them yet.

Enter YouTube.

My kids like watching videos about Minecraft online. They recently ran across one where the narrator liberally used the r-word. I sat my kids down and talked to them about the r-word. I told them that it is a word used to make fun of vulnerable people and that it is not a curse word, but it is a cruel word. I told them that I would be very disappointed if I heard that word come out of their mouths because the only reason to use it is to be thoughtless and very, very mean.

Now, Jack is echolalic. That means that he repeats words and phrases that he hears. Often he will use exact repeated phrases when typical kids might make up their own words. My kids were no longer allowed to watch the offending Minecraft video, but I knew that those words were still rolling around inside his head.

The other day, I was driving in my car with my two younger kids when I heard Jack talking about "the [r-word] squid mod" from Minecraft. My heart sank. I pulled the car over to the side of the road and turned around. I couldn't have my autistic son using this word. I just couldn't.

Still, I didn't know how to tell him that people use that word to make fun of people like him. He didn't know. He didn't understand. I didn't want to have to be the one to tell him that he would probably hear that word hurled against him in his life. All I knew is that I had to make sure he knew that word wasn't okay to use.

I took away Jack's most precious thing that afternoon. I told him that because he used that word he had lost his video game privileges for the day. I told him him that the r-word was mean and that kind people don't say it, even if we don't intend it in a hurtful way. I watched his face crumble and he started to cry. The r-word had hurt Jack for the first time, but somehow I had been the one to do it.

I know that Jack knows not to use the word anymore. I'm sure that my lesson sunk in. I'm still not sure that he really understood why though. He heard that it was a mean word, but it is really hard to describe why the word is offensive without telling him that some people will make fun of him and his friends because of their disabilities—that people might use the word on him some day just because he is autistic or a special education student. 

I hope that when and if that happens that he remembers this lesson and remembers that I stood up for him and others like him even when it would have been easier to let it slide. I hope he sees me continue to stand up against cruel language even as I use curse words. I hope that he—and his brothers—will also stand up against the r-word when people use it to hurt or to debase.

Looking for a word to use instead of the r-word? Check out this poster. Read more about the Special Olympics campaign to "Spread the Word to End the Word."

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Stimeyland.

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