You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think It Means.

kiss 2Every generation of parents adds its own entires to the Great Dictionary of Parenting. In the 80s it was “latch-key kid”, in the 90s, “play-date” and “time-out”. The naughties saw a slew of them: BPA-free, uber-boober, attachment parenting, free-range kids, sancti-mommy, inappropriate.

Inappropriate is one of those words parents started using instead of bad. Because apparently (there’s another one) it’s not good to judge things by labeling them bad. Or good. So I guess what I really mean is that it is inappropriate to label things with modifiers like good and bad. Or something like that. What it really means is that behavior which used to be considered bad was….well, it is still considered bad, we just call it something else.

Aramintha, it is inappropriate to pour sand on that boy and then hit him on the head with your shovel.

Of course, it was really meant for situations when you wanted your child to stop doing something that was totally normal, but perhaps socially uncomfortable.

“Zephyr, it’s inappropriate to play with your penis in public. That’s something you save for your private time.”

I did it too. Joined the parade, jumped on the bandwagon. But I’ve stopped for the most part because like most parenting trends, what started off as a seedling of good intention blossomed into a redwood of ridiculousness.

I find myself walking around channeling Inigo Montoya. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When it comes down to it, inappropriate behavior is a broad and subjective range. While there are things most, if not all of us, will agree are to be discouraged, we are usually comfortable labeling such things with much stronger language, like unacceptable. What we really mean of course is bad, but the idea of using the word bad around kids died around the same time Michael Jackson started singing about it.

Inappropriate, for all intents and purposes, is a stop-gap. It’s a word we reach for when we don’t know what to say. Instead of saying to junior:

I don’t like it when you touch my boobs because it makes me feel uncomfortable, or I don’t like you being that close to me right now, or I don’t like the way it feels when you do that, or don’t get up so close to my grill, child.

We say:

It’s inappropriate when you touch Mommy that way.

So now instead of having a generation of kids wandering around wondering if they’re bad, we have one wandering around wondering if they are inappropriate.tumblr_n1uea0QxU91r4ueyro1_250

And if something can be labeled inappropriate, Newton’s Third Law of Language dictates that there must be an equal and opposite range of behaviors deemed appropriate.

The fun starts when you try to figure out who gets to decide. The pope? The president? Tipper Gore and the PMRC? Parents?

Last year I chaperoned a field trip to a dance performance about bodies. Two young adults stood on the stage, dressed in sweats and tank tops. The piece, which explored non-verbal communication, was attempting to convey the physical differences between the young man and the young woman. At one point, both pulled their sweats away from their body and looked down their own pants, then back up to the each other as if to say, “hey, do you have one of these too?” Apparently a few kids went home and told their parents that the show was inappropriate.

I do not think that word means what you think it means.

I think, what they meant, is that sitting in a dark theatre with a body full of budding hormones watching two very fit people non verbally communicate about bodies made them feel…different? uncomfortable? tingling? curious? confused? Perhaps it even made them feel awkward when the lights came up and they confronted their own bodies. But is any of that inappropriate?

Unless we have reached a point where we are shielding our kids from the fact that they a) have bodies or b) are a different sex than half the population (and honestly, some days it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case), then I don’t understand how it could be construed as inappropriate. If anything, I would argue the feelings it aroused in some children were entirely appropriate for their age group.

It came up again yesterday when a friend was seeking guidance on what is considered appropriate public behavior for a budding tweenage romance. The school her son attends has a policy about inappropriate behavior.

There’s it is again.

When I was in 5th grade, we were coupled off. By sixth grade we were playing spin the bottle and other kissing games. Some of my parenting peers were visibly upset this year when the boys and girls in 5th grade were asking one another to the school dance. It caused a lot of stress. These confusing feelings that go hand in hand with growing up usually do. Did some children feel pressured to ask another student to the dance? I’m sure they did. That can be a pretty confusing emotion for a child who is not prepared for it. In fact, I’m pretty confident that’s what influenced my own son to ask a (girl)friend. But…labeling that exploration of maturity inappropriate?

kissTo me, that is well within the range of appropriate. Exploring budding feelings, putting a toe in the water. Not all kids are ready for that, including my son, but some are. Who are the rest of us to say that their behavior is inappropriate? Does inappropriate mean any behavior that makes someone else uncomfortable? Because hell, that can be expanded to include just about any behavior short of breathing. Is hand-holding appropriate after a certain age? Hugging? Kissing? How about playing violent video games or watching James Bond films? Wearing makeup? Short skirts? Baggy jeans and a hoodie? How about shooting a rifle? Any of those behaviors is going to make someone else feel uncomfortable.

What’s appropriate for your goose may be totally inappropriate for my gander. And vice versa. If ganders and geese can be viced and versed.

Yes, we need to reinforce boundaries of acceptability with our children, but they should remain fairly broad. Across the board respect? Definitely. No means no? Yes, always. But children also need to be allowed and encouraged to find their own personal boundaries as well—not necessarily the false ones we create for them, or worse, the ones they don’t even know they are crossing because they have no idea what inappropriate means.

Because they keep hearing that word. And I do not think it means what they think it means.





4 Comments Add yours

  1. The power of language fascinates me. Trying to carve it to meet one need always has odd repercussions in an unintended place. These vague terms like inappropriate creep into our language until the initial meaning is completely lost. George Carlin was a comedian who loved to point out the crazy lengths we go to in language to avoid being direct, I think Louis CK is the closest guy doing that today. Interesting post…as usual.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      Me too. At the heart of what I do is a love of language. (How I wish I had two languages to love…or three). This one goes a lot deeper than just the use of the word. My husband said the other day, and it’s too beautiful a statement not to use somehow in a post further down the line, that we are trying to democratize childhood–to the detriment of everyone. But I feel like my feelings are too heavy to express at the moment, so I tried to take a lighter approach by focusing on the word. I’m glad it seemed to have worked.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is excellent, Dina. I want to cheer. I hear this word all-the-freaking-time, and I don’t even HAVE kids. And I love The Princess Bride reference.


    1. Dina Honour says:

      It is yet another trend, I fear. I’m having a bit of a hard time lately with the my idea of childhood vs. the idea of childhood that seems to be on offer at the moment. I’m trying to work through it without blame or without losing my mind. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes not. This one fell somewhere in the middle. The Princess Bride is in the top 3 quoted movies in our house at any given time, even though my traitor children claim not to like it. Ingrates.


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