This morning, a woman showed me a picture of her two grandchildren, two little girls. They were adorable, and I said as much, and immediately, she said, smiling, “they’re bad.”
I cringed. In the African-American community, I frequently hear parents and relatives refer to their little ones as “bad,” and when I’ve known the person saying it, I’ve asked them not to do it. Language is so important, and the word “bad” is not a feel-good word or a word that encourages empowerment and healthy self-esteem. If children are told they are bad, they will believe it and eventually, it act it out.
Saying kids are “bad” when they are, in fact, just kids being kids, is troubling. I almost never hear white parents say that about their kids, not even when they’re in stores and throwing a tantrum. Too often, I suspect that African-American parents label normal developmental behavior as “bad,” those times of discovery which help a child connect to his or her world, and to him or herself.
I interviewed, once, a man who was a brilliant artist. When he was little, he told me, he used to take markers or crayons, or something, and draw on the white tiles that were in his mother’s kitchen. (the kitchen had black and white tiles). He said his mother never scolded him, but allowed him to draw. Every night she would clean the tiles off, and the next day, he’d be at it again. His art work was phenomenal, and he said that he was so grateful that his mother had not yelled and screamed at him and called him “bad.”
I have never forgotten that story, and I firmly believe that we don’t pay enough attention to the language we use in general, but especially the language we use in addressing our children. I have noticed it in the African-American community, but I am sure it is not limited to our community. Whenever an adult, in the midst of a bad or tired moment, says something mean and disparaging to a child, it erodes that child’s sense of self and self-worth.
The language that has been used to describe African-Americans has been damaging. African-Americans have been described as “lazy,” and yet, so many African-Americans I know, and knew when I was growing up, worked two and three jobs to support their families. African-American students are called “low functioning,” and “slow,” and if they hear that, especially from teachers they love and respect, it damages their psyches.
When my children were in school, I was very careful to monitor how teachers talked to them. When my daughter was in an honor’s math class, the only African-American in her class, and was not doing so well at the beginning, her teacher called me in and expressed concern. From her remarks, I remember this one statement, “She is like a deer in the headlights.”
I fumed, and I told her that she might not want to ever say that to my daughter, that in my house, we practiced positive language and through that language, my children were encouraged to believe that they could do anything they put their minds to. I told the teacher that my daughter would be OK, because she had a mind to be OK, and she had the capability to be OK. I would talk with her as she cried through her math homework, and would tell her that she had the advantage over the little numbers on her paper; “after all,” I would say, “you have a brain. Those little numbers do not.” She got it. I mean, she got it that she should always believe in herself and not let anything convince her that she was less than who God had made her. She finished that math class with a B+. The teacher was astounded. I was not.
Parents have to understand the power of language. Our children love us; they want to be like us. If we call them stupid, they will believe it, and they will hate themselves. No person who does anything great does it by hating him or herself. African-Americans have grown up under a barrage of negative and damaging language. Our children have not liked their hair, their lips, the color of their skin …So much of what we are as African-Americans has been described as “bad,” and too many of us drank the kool-aid! We need to understand how toxic language affected us as individuals and as a people… we have got to understand that and do better.
We will find that if we use positive and empowering language with our children, we will begin to use it with ourselves as well. Many of us grew up with “old school” parents who called us names and put us down …but we don’t have to continue that cycle. We have a choice. We may not have the level of self-esteem we want, or have even needed thus far in order to squeeze all of life out of the lives we have …but we can certainly improve our lives and what we do while we are alive if we talk to ourselves and affirm ourselves, no matter what we have been told in the past.
We are, all of us, full of capabilities and possibilities. We are all rather like Watty Piper‘s The Little Engine that Could. We really are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, and so are our children. It is our job as adults to convince to the children that, “yes, they can!”
I hope those two little girls, so cute, don’t hear at home that they’re “bad.” I hope they are inquisitive and curious and lively and excited about life, and that they are encouraged to be so. That’s one of the most important things we can do to end cycles of low self-esteem and feelings of quiet desperation.
A candid observation…