When your child’s pal offends

Your daughter’s pal throws around the word ‘retard’ a lot. Is it OK to speak up?

 Your child's pal uses an offensive wordYour child’s pal uses an offensive word (Eric Herchaft, Getty Images / December 6, 2012)
By Heidi Stevens, Tribune NewspapersDecember 19, 2012

Parent advice

From our panel of staff contributors

Not just OK, but mandatory, especially in your earshot and/or under your roof; silence can be interpreted as tacit approval. Depending on the age, you might interject with “Whoa, that’s really not a nice word; you can really hurt people’s feelings that way.” Ratchet up as the severity or frequency if the usage continues. If the pal is older, you can explain that there are people with developmental disabilities and that holding them up to ridicule, even indirectly, is cruel. You’re not really just talking to your daughter’s friend; you’re also letting your daughter know where you draw the line.

— Phil Vettel

Emphasize how hurtful and cruel it is to kids who, through no fault of their own, are different. A lot of kids just go along with their peers using words like “retard” without understanding what they really mean. It’s a parent’s job to explain that these words — especially popular among boys are crude expressions for homosexual — aren’t just silly slang. And if she continues, continue to correct her.

— Ellen Warren

Having a zero-tolerance household for slurs and other bad behavior is a good idea. We’re of the mind that all of our kids’ friends are welcome in our house, but when they exhibit bad behavior, we don’t hesitate to correct them with the same rules we impose on our kids. It falls under the “not in my house” rule. I take the kid aside to avoid embarrassment and say something like, “Can I talk to you for a sec? We don’t use that word here because it hurts people, like a punch, and we don’t let stuff like that happen in our house, OK?” Then release him back into the wild.

— Michael Zajakowski

Expert advice

It’s both OK and important to speak up, says family therapist Fran Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent” (Palgrave MacMillan).

Equally important is your tone.

“Your job, as the adult in the situation, is not to blame or judge or be punitive or harsh,” says Walfish. “You want to have an almost benign tone of voice.”

This will set the stage for the little offender — and your own child — to actually hear your message, rather than bury it in a pile of embarrassed defenses.

“What I would say is, in a very compassionate tone, ‘I get it. That’s how your friends talk. But in our house we have the rule that we don’t hurt each other with hands or words. Those words can be hurtful to some people, and in our house we don’t take that chance,’ ” Walfish suggests. “Then leave it at that. Only say, ‘And you’re only welcome in our house when you don’t use that word’ if she keeps using the word over and over.”

If your child’s friend is directing derogatory words at your child, you can alter your approach a bit to help her see the impact of her language.

“You position yourself as a mediator,” says Walfish. “Your first question is to your own child, ‘Hey, how do you feel when your friend calls you that?’ You want to empower the receiver of the hostility and encourage her to tell the other child how she feels. Then you explain to the friend that in your house, it’s a rule that you don’t hurt each other with hands or words.”

Tone remains critical in both cases.

“You can’t be sarcastic,” Walfish says. “You can’t be mean or seem overprotective. You’re just being clear: This is how it is. That language has to stop.”

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