“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Perhaps like you, I used this retort as a kid, most memorably at the morning bus stop when I was being made fun of for something trivial. I was fortunate to not be a target for bullying, but like most kids, I had my moments of being teased.

But names do hurt, and word choices do matter – especially when it comes to children and our community.

To this day I remember when a seasoned early childhood educator in about 2003 told me, after my presentation to a full room at a national conference, that I should use the term “childcare” instead of “daycare” because she takes care of children and not days. I haven’t used “daycare” since.

Poster in an Arlington, VA, middle school to discourage the “R” word.

Also during that early time in my career while working at the U.S. Department of Education, I learned to reference the individual first when speaking about children with needs – the person is the focal point. That is, we serve individuals with disabilities, and individuals who are homeless – not “disabled people” nor “homeless people”. They are people first, and then they have a situation or characteristic that may need attention – sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the words we use – our lexicon – and how mindfully or not we may be selecting them. I reflected on this a-new while at my first local chapter meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) earlier this year, during a discussion about the “opportunity gap”. We often hear and use the term “achievement gap” in education. This puts the frame of achievement on what the children can do – the outputs – which assumes all children arrive to school at equal starting points regarding experience and family support. Rather, an alternate term is rising – “opportunity gap” – which acknowledges that inputs children bring to school sometimes are inequitable in opportunities and family supports. Considering the opportunities gaps can better help schools individualize an approach for student success.

After visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I became very sensitive about using the term “slaves”. Rather, I try to say “enslaved people” or “people who were slaves”. I’m also learning to say “emancipated people”, who are those who took it upon themselves to risk their lives to escape slavery – not waiting to be freed by others. This suggests a different holder of the power. It’s subtle, but so are many of the messages that are engrained in our cultural lexicon that shape our view of the world.

It’s clear that language changes and evolves over time – just look at writing a few decades ago or hundreds of years past. But the question of the messaging within the words we choose – that is something for us to consider in our dialogue today.

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