Words matter as does tone or intent

A few weeks ago I read a debate on a therapist group site over the word kiddo. The majority of clinicians weighed in decidedly against using the word kiddo in conversation. There was a visceral dislike for the word. I’m always interested to delve deeper when someone has a visceral reaction to something and kiddo was no exception. What caught my attention was that everyone weighing in was an adult in a position of privilege or power. To my recollection, there were not any opinions from actual kids which I thought was interesting. Instead, it was how they felt kids felt about being called “kiddo.” Their recommendation is the word should not be used and perhaps stricken from the dictionary. My thought was it is important to advocate for those without power or privilege but we need to be advocating for those things people care about in the same way. So I did some research.

I asked friends on a social media site, if they were under the age of 25 how they felt about being called kiddo. Again, a few adults over the age of 25 weighed in with how they thought their kids would feel or how they think kids feel about it. Which is awesome. I love that people are thinking that way. However, I was looking for the actual thoughts of those people under the age of 25 or recollections from that age. And I did get some.

In all the responses I received, it wasn’t the word that was the problem, it was the tone or the intent. Everyone liked being called kiddo by family or close friends who meant it endearingly. And everyone had a problem when it was meant in a “belittling” or “dismissive” way. One young adult pointed out the relevancy of how you were raised playing a part in how something said can be interpreted. “We were raised in a household where our opinions were valued.” If you weren’t, “kiddo may be used in a condescending way to invalidate opinions.” This same young adult also pointed out she came from a position of privilege so it was easy for her to stand up for herself whereas a “a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community…have to fight just for their ‘right’ to exist based on the things people say to them.”

What’s the takeaway from this anecdotal research? Words matter. More importantly, tone and intent matter. If you use a term in a dismissive, belittling or invalidating way, do not be surprised if someone takes offense and assertively advocates for themselves. And consider this permission to assertively advocate for yourself! For us adults in the crowd, let’s talk about boundary teaching. Instead of banning a word that you believe is being used in a dismissive, belittling, or invalidating way, can you advocate for that person? Help them to assertively set boundaries with people who belittle them. We can also advocate in the moment. For example, “So and so isn’t a kid. I have found them to be an important part of our team.” assertively puts your support behind the “kiddo” and lets the speaker know their language is unacceptable.

A big part of my first book Stop Talking to Yourself and Start Listening is about learning why we think/feel/behave the way we do and then assertively managing it. I am not a fan of cancel culture because what offends one person is not going to necessarily offend someone else. As that same young adult in my research said “You really can’t offend me with anything because I am in charge of how I interpret people’s words.” Instead of writing someone off because you don’t like what they said, go into what I call “information gathering mode” and find out 1. was that a dismissive tone you heard? 2. why are they dismissing you? 3. were they able to meet you in that uncomfortable space of being told you didn’t like what they were doing? They may surprise you with their response to your queries or they may confirm your suspicions with continued lack of respect. As my mom always said “The only people you need to respect are those that respect you.” Once you get that information about the person you can move forward as to how much room this person gets in your life and head.

My recommendation is to use information gathering mode to confirm your opinion or perception. Then, set boundaries with those who disrespect you, give as little room as possible in your life and mind to those who disregard your boundaries, and advocate for those with less power than you when they feel disrespected, belittled, or invalidated.

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