Sticks and stones

As summer unofficially ends and the school season begins, here’s some food for thought: an (unedited) essay written by my daughter Christine, age 9.

Normally, I wouldn’t care about the word “Retarded”. But when Thomas came along, that all changed. Thomas was born ten weeks early. Because of that he started out with health problems and a disability called “Down Syndrome”.* Then everything seemed to change. My mother stayed at the hospital, with the little baby I was barley able to see, because of all the tubes coming out of him, just about every little part of him was covered in tubes and IVs.

As Thomas grew older he became healthier and after getting his tonsils out at age 2, getting tubes in his ears, and an eye operation he was as good as any baby. Except for the fact that he was 2 years old and he wasn’t walking.

At my school we were talking about how people work, like how they learn how to walk. I brought up the topic about Thomas; the little baby that was 2 and couldn’t walk.

“Christine’s brother has a disability” My teacher began, “Which means he’s Mildly Retarded”

Retarded?

Just then I felt like killing everybody in the classroom. The fact that they all believed that the little brother I loved was “Retarded.” My mind burned with anger. I nearly broke out in tears. Why did they treat him like that? He may be different but that doesn’t mean he should be separated.

Later on in the week, our teacher was showing us some idiotic videos about plants. “These are mildly Retarded!” whispered a boy, to a neighbor. As soon as I heard him speak that kind of language my heart was filling up with anger again. I wanted to reach out and choke the boy, now sitting peacefully on his pockets. Wasn’t “Retarded” just a term used by Doctors and Nurses?

I had a clear memory of a certain video, particularly “Fred” which used the word “Retarded” in the way that the young boy in my class used. My mother was hurt by the videos and taught us not to say the word in that way. Now I had a little baby brother who was “Retarded” and now the world used the word in a different way. I was afraid to speak out, and say that that wasn’t a good word, but threatens had gone around from the young boys in my class about “Beating Me Up” and such. The urge to choke him became larger as I continued to think about the word “Retarded”. But my number one question about the word was “Why did they change the word to the meaning Stupid, or Idiotic?” It now was used as an insult, not a medical term.

The problem with the word hasn’t gone away yet, but soon I hope to overcome fears and face the music. As Thomas grows older I will continue to feel hurt whenever the word is used. But I will always love him and want him to be treated just like everybody else in America. As this chapter in his life stage, being a small baby continues I will strive to look out for him and keep him safe, and not hurt either by sticks and stones or words that come from the mouth.

* Christine now understands that Thomas’s prematurity didn’t cause Down syndrome.

About Kathryn Soper

(Founding Editor) is the author of the memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born (Globe Pequot Press, 2009) and the editor of four published anthologies. She contributes to Mormon forums from Meridian Magazine to Sunstone on a variety of topics including gender issues, disability, mental health, sexuality, family life, and spirituality.

54 thoughts on “Sticks and stones

  1. I am moved by this story and the compassion of a sister for a brother.

    Everyone has some kind of handicap (Oh wait, now we must say disability). Some are more visible than others. But the search goes on for words that are neutral to describe them. It doesn’t matter how neutral the word is when it is first applied–imbecile, idiot and moron–were neutral once and only doctors used them. So the professional found a different word. Retarded meaning slower or a little behind is no longer neutral.

    Human nature being what it is, I can’t imagine it will ever be different, and words can really hurt you.

  2. Beautiful. Thomas is blessed to have her as a big sister. If only we could all look out for each other like that. We should, shouldn’t we? We all have problems of some sort in our loves, though they may not be obvious they are there. More love and acceptance needed by us all. More looking for what is the same and not different. More looking for ways to help and not condemn.

  3. Thanks for these comments, all.

    Claudia, I had similar thoughts about Christine’s use of “idiot.” Just a generation ago, Thomas would’ve been defined medically as a Mongoloid Idiot. I’m realizing this is something I need to tell my kids, because despite my discouragement they say “idiot” quite a bit. It’s just as disparaging, but since they don’t connect it to their brother it doesn’t bother them.

    And that’s a really important point to make: “retarded” didn’t bother any of my kids (or myself, when I was a kid) before Thomas came along. So I can’t point any fingers. My kids shouldn’t, either. But even when we intellectually excuse people who unthinkingly use the term, it still hurts just as badly.

  4. Very well-written and perceptive. Another word I don’t like when it is used wrongly is ‘gay’. It is interesting how things always end up becoming pejorative after a while. I try to be careful about my speech so my children learn.

  5. As someone whose older sister has cerebral palsy and mental and physcial handicaps, I too grew up hating that word. It has always grated on my ears.

  6. I have used the word retarded to describe people who are seemingly normal when they behave stupidly. As I write this I realize that using retarded to describe this behavior is wrong. I am so sorry. It’s just not right.

    I have a cousin who has down syndrome. He is such a joy to our family and we all love him so much. I couldn’t even imagine him not being here. I’ve never considered him “retarded” in any way. I’m not sure if there is much use for this word. hmmm I have lots to think about today.

  7. Scattered, thanks so much for your comment.

    One day, just months after Thomas was born, a friend and neighbor in my ward got embarrassed about some minor grammar mistake she made. She put her hands over her face and said “I’m so retarded!” I was incredulous that she would use that word to my face. I said, “Please don’t use that word.” And she thought I meant she shouldn’t insult herself that way. (Which she shouldn’t, but that was hardly my point.)

    Later, I realized that to some extent, “retarded” has become disconnected from people with mental disabilities, just like “idiot” has. This woman didn’t mean to insult Thomas.

    Awareness and understanding is needed on both sides of the fence. I’d hope, though, that most people would be willing to nix the “R” word even if it seems harmless to them. Thanks for your sensitivity, and give your cousin a hug from me.

  8. Kathryn,
    When I worked for MARC (Mesa Association of Retarded Citizens) and we had training, they actually encouraged the use of the word retarded. People working there (like myself) were not inclined to use that word.( I certainly didn’t like being called that when I was a kid because one ofmy initials was R.)
    How can we change the system so hurtful words aren’t used?

  9. I want to add, using words like “psycho, and “crazy” to describe people, especially people with mental illness, is just as hurtful.

  10. Wow. Christine, you are an articulate young lady. You put your feelings and experience into words so beautifully! Thank you, thank you for sharing this with us Kathryn.

  11. I was really impressed with actor John C. McGinley’s fight to get rid of the “R” word earlier this year. So progress is being made.

  12. mmiles, how long ago did you have this training? The strong backlash against “retarded” is pretty recent. It gained a lot of strength over the past year, thanks to _Tropic Thunder_.

    I don’t have strong feelings about the word when used in its appropriate context (although I know many in the disability community who do). Sadly, any word we might come up with to describe kids like Thomas will soon become an insult.

    No matter how often we jump to different terminology, the Cylons will always find us. :)

  13. Again said – what a great little sister.

    The teacher equating disability with retarded is totally out of line too! As if all disabilities are the same.

    I have fought this stuff my whole life – embarrasingly i say, that i was just relieved as a kid when they quit using the term, “crippled up”.

    And by the way, I have found that many teachers, doctors, nurses are worst – i am constantly being asked if I can read – when i mention i went to college – well well, isn’t that nice

    Argh!

  14. Kathryn,
    It was in 1997, so quite awhile ago. I’m not sure we can stop society from misappropriating words. I suppose we can just stop it with ourselves.

    I didn’t realize the first read that your young daughter wrote this. Wow! What a gift!

  15. Beautiful post Christine. I see that you have your mother’s gift with words. I’m sure Thomas knows how lucky he is to have such an amazing big sister.

  16. People are thoughtless. My 16 yo daughter is bipolar. Psycho, crazy are thrown around her constantly. She is pretty well able to let it go but it bothers her. Believe me there is A LOT of insensitivity to mental illnesses. And a sense from others with more visual disabilities that mental illnesses are not really a handicap. Just because she is articulate and appears normal doesn’t mean she is. She has not finished a regular school year in 5 years. We hear a lot of just discipline her better, this from educators and others. If it were only that easy, Her mental illness sabotages her almost every day.

  17. Polly, my younger brother is also bipolar. He had a horrible time as a teenager before being diagnosed and my parents heard many of the same things–he just needs more discipline, etc. It’s still hard because his illness is not obvious from the outside like you pointed out.

  18. My consciousness has been raised. I finally get it about the R-word. I’ll never use it again, because when it comes into my mind I will think of a young girl so filled with love for her baby brother that she wanted to choke people who misused the word in her hearing.

    And I hope she has many mentors who encourage her to continue to write.

  19. Kathy (and Christine), this post was achingly beautiful to read and reminded me that we all need to be more conscious of the words we use. Christine, Thomas is lucky to have you for a big sister!

  20. When I was in elementary school, decades ago, the correct term was “mentally retarded” which the kids cut down to “retards”. I never liked the word. There was one class of kids, well, actually they were teenagers, but they attended the elementary school, and they were the “big” kids that no one wanted to play with. They stayed to themselves. There was one time I was brave enough to actually interact with one of them on the playground. It was a simple “hello”, but suddenly I was one of his best friends. He didn’t talk much, but he put his arm around me. Here I was with this almost 6 foot tall guy walking around with me. I felt good until the teasing started. The bell rang, and that was the last time I got close to him. I know I should have had more courage back then, but I never tried to even think “retard” after that. When I got older, I tried to always speak to them normally, like everybody else. One of the girls in that special education class at my old school is now an assistant to the Primary chorister in my mom’s ward, and she smiles while she serves. I’m glad some wise bishop finally saw how she could contribute to the ward and grow from it instead of always just following her parents around like she used to do when I was growing up.

    Obviously attitudes take time to change. Sometimes it takes a sharp wake-up call to get it, but I think circumstances are improving if ever so slowly.

    That’s a great essay. Every elementary classroom should read it.

  21. This was a powerful essay.

    Am I the only one, though, who worries about a child feeling angry enough to want to hurt another? I *understand* the pain, but from personal experience, I know that the anger alone can cause its own hurt. And at some point, wanting to strangle someone is not a good thing, no matter what the provocation.

    I don’t know myself how to fully deal with the hurt of words, because it is real. But I think that is another layer here to be discussed. I wouldn’t want this shared with children w/o a recognition of that part of the dynamic.

  22. BTW, I don’t want to take away from the original point, and this will make me all the more careful about words that are charged.

    And Christine, you are an amazing writer.

  23. I have to say that while my husband might think I’m the PC police, I am thankful that my mother raised me to never use words like these in a hurtful way (yes, even back in the 70s & 80s) and I can’t imagine letting my children using words like this either. This post makes me want to make sure I’m not letting anything slide accidentally.

    But if we are talking about words and hurtful words we might also want to talk about kids and adults saying “I want to kill” when they are angry. Are they truly homicidal or are they just angry? Isn’t there a better way to express that anger than saying they want to kill others? Where has Christine picked up this expression and why do we as a society let people say it like it doesn’t mean anything?

    Traci- please remember that Christine is a child and may not be quoting her teacher exactly. The teacher probably said Down Syndrome meant mildly retarded not that all disabilities meant mildly retarded.

  24. Am I the only one, though, who worries about a child feeling angry enough to want to hurt another?

    Isn’t there a better way to express that anger than saying they want to kill others?

    A better way to release the pressure of extremely potent emotions than writing about them? I haven’t found one.

    Consider the context: this is a child privately sorting through her complicated feelings toward some peers who had been cruel and intimidating to her in the past and were now jabbing a very tender spot. In this situation, I felt the emotions and the expression of them were completely healthy and appropriate–even beneficial.

  25. Christine is a very talented writer! I remember being a small child and feeling the same way about the misuse of the words “retarded” and “gay”- it just hurt my heart. She is a special soul and Thomas is lucky to have her as a big sis.

  26. I agree with Kathy’s comment (#30). It’s actually healthy for a child—especially one who has been picked on—to be able to acknowledge and verbalize intensely angry feelings so that they can process them and then move on. They will also feel like less of a victim. Suppressing their anger or feeling like their anger and desire for revenge are “wrong” just makes things worse. And I think a child psychologist would back this up.

  27. m&m: “Am I the only one, though, who worries about a child feeling angry enough to want to hurt another?”

    But m&m, don’t we all hurt each other in any number of ways–some aggressive, some passive-aggressive? And isn’t part of the journey learning how to stop doing just that? I don’t think Christine is exceptional in wanting to hurt someone when she’s angry. Whether it’s hitting someone or saying, “I won’t be your friend if you ________,” I think hurtful behavior is pretty prevalent in childhood and adolescence (and later.)And she’s only expressing her feeling–not taking action. (which should really count for something, since these kids have bullied her in the past and have been extremely hurtful to her.)

    I think we are all created differently-mellow to fierce. And perhaps for some there is a journey of tempering emotions, and for others there is a journey of putting forth the effort to feel more. If Christine is in the first camp, maybe she hasn’t yet mastered the appropriate expression or control of them at age 9, but she’s 9.

  28. A better way to release the pressure of extremely potent emotions than writing about them? I haven’t found one.

    Note that my comment came after one where someone suggested that this be read to other children. That was something that influenced my comment. I don’t think something like this should be shared with other children. The praise of the principle of sensitivity could be misunderstood as validating the anger, imo.

    I think it’s important that Christine is self-aware, and can sort out her thoughts through writing (again, amazing writing, btw), and that her mom actually knows she feels this way (what would be worse, of course, would to be to have the emotions and not know what to do with them, to not have any guidance or help sorting through them).

    Still, it did strike me as pretty intense and to that point in the conversation, no one had said anything about that. I know she is young, but my thought is if we are going to talk about principles here, we can talk about them all, including the issue of anger, of how easily we can think we are justified in our anger when the provocation comes first. She of course is still young, and she has a wise mother. But still, as a fiery, passionate person myself, this struck a nerve in me, though. I still need lots of help realizing how important it is to temper my own intense emotions. I don’t know that we ever outgrow the need for that conversation and realization.

    And to be honest, I wish someone had taught me when I was younger and my brain and habits were still developing. Clearly, if her daughter is writing and sharing at this level, they are having important and meaningful conversations. Again, I still thought it was worth bringing up here (and I probably should have not addressed my comments to Christine — it feels a little weird to have a nine-year-old post and not be sure if the comments should go to her or to the adults having this conversation!) So consider my comments more at a general level, not directed at Christine.

    p.s. This post has made me realize I want to encourage my children to write more, to use that vehicle to sort through — and, I hope, to open up communication.

  29. If Christine’s emotions and mode of expression are appropriate given the context, then I don’t think this post is a good springboard for talking about inappropriate emotions and expression. It’s a worthy topic for discussion, but I believe such discussion is misplaced here.

  30. M&M,

    I’m with you on this one. Sometimes when a sensitive issue is discussed people want to agree with unequivocally with the “underdog”. I think we can understand Christine’s hurt without condoning feelings or language of “killing everybody” or wanting to “reach out and choke the boy”. We live in a society where all emotion is seen as acceptable and only actions matter. The gospel teaches us differently. If my child had expressed these same things I would have wanted to first understand the pain she was in, but then be sure to have a conversation about returning love to those who do hurtful things. We have a choice in these things and children can and should be taught that. I see this as a good opportunity to teach that Christine can have compassion for her classmates just as she wishes her classmates would have compassion for Thomas.

    I think it goes back to the judging thread. People can be ignorant or even intentionally mean, but we have a choice in our response. I am not condemning Christine and I know she is a child and working through her experiences. My point is more to the adults who think such language or feelings should be condoned instead of helping a child understand a way to view the world that gives her power to rise above such things instead of feeling victimized by others’ insensitivities.

  31. Sunny, in my experience, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. When my kids are this upset, my strategy is to first validate their intense negative feelings and language (while insisting that they be expressed in an appropriate manner), and when the time is right, offer guidance based on gospel principles about where to go from there. In fact, I’ve found I can’t effectively do the latter without first doing the former.

  32. Kathryn,

    As I said, I would work to understand. It may be semantics, but to me that is different than validating. It is one thing to understand the process by which feelings came about (and to express compassion for that struggle), and another to condone such feelings as appropriate. I can tell my child I understand that it can be easy to react that way, but also teach appropriate response and a compassionate way to view those who don’t seem compassionate. I can say, “I understand why you were upset” without saying, “It’s okay to feel that way about your classmates”. I would most likely then have a conversation about where those classmates might be coming from, their experiences (or lack thereof), etc. I would want to help her frame it in a way that gave her power to not feel like a victim of others behavior sooner than later so as not to have negative feelings fester and turn into a pattern of being easily offended.

    But maybe that’s what you’re saying too. Or maybe we just see it differently. If that’s the case, neither of us is going to change the other’s mind. I just wanted to support what M&M had said because for one I agreed with her sentiments, and because, as I said, sometimes in wanting to be supportive we put a person or idea in a place that cannot be considered objectively. We sometimes feel we have to agree with everything to be supportive of some things.

    Ok, I’m done. Please know I’m not trying to start a debate or cause negativity. It’s just the way I see it and I understand if you see it differently.

  33. I’m just going to jump in here and say that feelings of anger are normal, and if we tell our kids that they are ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or ‘evil’ for feeling them, we’re going to land them in therapy. Anger and sadness and all the contradictory feelings we feel are a normal human response to life. Teaching our children what to do with those feelings is where the conversation lies.

    Conversations with our kids like, “It’s ok to feel angry if you need to, here’s what you can do when you feel angry… Here’s what you shouldn’t do when you feel angry…”

    But since we all feel anger, trying to make it evil to feel that emotion seems kind of dangerous to me.

  34. I don’t see any issue with those “harm” comments, in fact I would consider them very normal. Coming from a therapuetic background working clinically with children who have a sibling with chronic illness or disabilites. Their experiences are very powerful, not only in protectiveness of their sibling, but their need to protect their whole family system. The desire even momentarily to inflict pain, create justice, fits very well with a late middle childhood sense of morality. It is also usually more about their desire to have power over a situation and well physical power is still a primary mode of children’s power. also I think many people can relate to feeling physical urges to hurt someone after a loved one has been harmed?
    Also I would read these comments very differently from a 9 year old than a 19 yo? I agree we are trying to learn to align our heart not just our actions but I l believe this comes only through identifying those emotions and choosing other things not simplying suppressing them. (I think if we do not we negate the power of the atonement in some aspects of our lives). I think dialogue around this is important. In this case her statments probably came from a number of emotions, anger, frustration, embarrassment, sense of isolation, protectiveness, shame, sometimes the very taboo ambivalence (loving the sibling, but wishing they were typical?) Helping her delineate those is a powerful experience. Her comment is a age appropriate tool to express a sense of deep threat to her emotional security. Which again indentifying where it’s coming from and how to mediate it is important.

  35. Teaching our children what to do with those feelings is where the conversation lies.

    FWIW, that is more along the lines of what I was hoping to discuss all along. That, and discussing how we as adults respond to situations where we feel anger.

    I also clarified that my comments should be seen more generally, and not directed at Christine.

    But if Kathy wants to have a discussion along those lines another time, that’s fine, too.

    One last thing, though. Given several comments in response, I want to clarify that I have never said that I think anger is simply something to be ignored or suppressed. I think there is a bit of a disconnect going on here. But again I’m fine discussing all of this another time.

  36. I love Christine’s thoughts about the people she saw as a threat to her sweet brother. What a wonderful, protective sister she is! And what an inspiring, loving, and exemplary mother she will no doubt be.

  37. I wish my kids were as fierce when defending each other. That would definitely do a mom’s heart good. Kathryn, you must be so proud.

  38. I’m sorry to say that this is a word that was used around our home (with only mild reproof) as my children were growing up. They generally used it to tease each other about doing something foolish. Recently, I have become aware of how hurtful its use can be, and I am sorry I wasn’t more in tune with others’ feelings. Had I been, I would have come down much harder against it.

  39. Dearest Christine,
    I am awed by the sensitive and honest essay that you wrote about Thomas. He is blessed to be in a home with you and your parents and siblings. Thank you for sharing your feelings on the Segullah blog. You have given many people a lot to think about!
    I love you always,
    Grandma Carol

  40. Through this sharing of ideas greater compassion for others can be developed. Thanks for your honest words, Christine (and Mom Kathryn). I hope we can all learn to speak with kindness and consideration for others needs and situations.

  41. I enjoyed seeing Christine’s perspective. She is very articulate, indeed. And it’s so sweet to see how protective she is of her brother.

    Still, I just get this itchy feeling when we get so upset about particular verbiage. I will never say that words don’t matter and/or don’t hurt. Ever. But I worry more about INTENT than I do about whether or not the words have some particular meaning to ME. If someone’s being hateful or hurtful with words, that’s one thing, but if they are just using words that have multiple meanings, maybe we can let it go?

    When someone says, “That’s retarded” don’t we all know that they mean that the statement seems to be coming from someone who isn’t mentally quite up to speed? Not the most sensitive statement in the world, but do we really need to get up in arms about it?

    And when the teacher said he was mentally retarded, well, isn’t it true? What is the offense? Why all the issues about being blind (instead of sight impaired), deaf (instead of hearing impaired, and handicapped (instead of disabled or differently abled, or the cloying handi-capable)?

    Once I explained a nonsensical statement by saying, “Sorry. I’m brain dead,” only to have a woman scream at me about how hurtful it was because she really had a relative in a vegetative state. Huh? My mom is brain dead, too — she’s actually dead — but I don’t take the statement personally.

    I’m just going to jump in here and say that feelings of anger are normal, and if we tell our kids that they are ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or ‘evil’ for feeling them, we’re going to land them in therapy.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and seem even less enlightened than I’m sure I already do, but here goes.

    I don’t necessarily think that feeling angry is bad, wrong, or evil. But there ARE things that I do think are bad, wrong, and evil. And if my kids are doing them, I honestly don’t see the point of pretending the behaviors are better than they are or using some kind of dumbed down verbiage.

    Let’s say your kid steals from a store. Do you really refrain from saying that stealing is bad? “The child isn’t bad, the behavior is bad.” is just goofy psycho-babble to me. We are what we do and when we do bad things, we ARE being bad.

    If you ask me, all the semantics are sending way more people into therapy than just a straightforward, loving discussion about what’s right and what’s wrong.

    Back to my usual lurk mode.

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