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When I Talk to My Kids About the R-Word During This Presidential Election

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The R-word is, or at least it should be, obsolete.

Yet here I am, sitting in a gymnasium with 200 or so people, including my 5- and 10-year-old daughters, hearing that word.

An elder in the league is giving the end-of-season speech. Several of his key points have grated on my nerves, so I’m already frustrated.

Twenty or so minutes into the speech, the R-word spills out of his mouth.

“All the parents think their kids are gifted, and it’s funny because all the kids think their parents are retarded!”

What? Surely I misunderstood him. Surely this well-respected man and beloved coach didn’t just use that word as comic relief in front of over 100 impressionable young players.

I am flabbergasted and physically ill.

As soon as we are buckled in the car, I address his speech. My daughter Gracie laments its lengthiness and lack of relevance to cheerleaders, but she makes no mention of the language used. I tell my children the use of the R-word is not appropriate in any setting. I never want to hear them use it, especially in a name-calling fashion.

We talk about the power of words. After all, our evolution as a society can be witnessed by our vocabulary. My little hometown houses the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the nation. It is a magnificently stoic building, built in the 1800s to serve as a sanctuary for the mentally ill, though back then the definition of mentally ill was very different. When the building was sold a few years ago, its new owners restored the building and its original name: the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Some members of the community were appalled. The term “lunatic” has a negative connotation; the thought was we should not be reverting to such derogatory terminology. However, the owners were determined to maintain the integrity of the building’s history, and this was its authentic albeit uncomfortable title.

I wonder if the senior citizen who spoke during that assembly even realizes the inappropriateness of his vocabulary. During most of his life, the R-word was an accepted label. Even during my childhood, which I like to think wasn’t that long ago, the mentally, physically or emotionally impaired students were taught in an isolated classroom in the basement of our school. I cannot conjure up the face of a single one of those children because they lived in their own little bubble away from us. I do remember the teachers referring to them as the “retarded kids.” I believe it wasn’t meant as a slur; it was simply the accepted label during that time.

I prefer to believe the speaker who used the R-word in that gymnasium just didn’t know any better.

When we arrive home, I eagerly turn the television to CNN. Lately I have been somewhat addicted to the presidential race. I’ve never been incredibly into politics. Sure, I’ve paid attention and I’ve voted, but I haven’t watched nearly as many debates as a civic-minded person should have… until this race.

I watch CNN and FOX News with the same morbid curiosity as one passing a car wreck. We do not want to see, but at the same time, we struggle to look away.

This presidential race is loud and obnoxious. It’s a mixture of reality TV and platform with very little substance. It is, more than anything, embarrassing to explain to my children.

More and more often lately I’ve found myself repeating the same phrases to my children. We do not behave that way. I realize he is a presidential candidate, but we do not call people names. We do not mock people for the size of their ears. We certainly do not mimic the involuntary twitches of a person with a disability. We do not interrupt others. We do not yell. We do not use that word. We do not hate people because of their race or religion or beliefs. We do not stereotype.

What does it say for our country when I am uncomfortable watching the news or the presidential debates with my children in the room?

I flipped to a news station only to discover a beloved former First Lady had passed away. Sadly, watching stories about Nancy Reagan’s life and passing was a relief, a much-needed break from the ugliness of the presidential campaign.

I vaguely remember President Reagan. I was approaching 4 when he gave his inaugural address and was nearly 12 when his term ended. My great-grandma adored him. She watched every White House press conference and State of Union address with reverence. I learned to respect the presidency by watching Grandma model it.

What are my children learning by watching me during this presidential race? My reaction to the candidates’ words is disgust. The media has focused more on the outlandish soundbites than the real issues, and my children have heard me say this. As a voter, I feel obligated to study each candidate, but am I being respectful and responsible in my discussions around the dinner table?

Probably not.

I am not the example my grandmother was.

But I try.

two girls searing red white and blue outfits
Jena’s daughters.

I talk to my girls about behaviors and words. I tell them about Nancy Reagan, who had strong opinions but appeared gracious and charming. We discuss Nancy’s abandonment of a few conservative beliefs to stand up for stem cell research to aid in the fight to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. We talk about advocacy and the importance of finding purpose in painful situations. They connect her plight with Alzheimer’s disease to ours with Lyme disease.

These are the conversations we should be having.

Strength. Grace. Respect. Advocacy. Empathy. Intelligence. Compassion. Manners.

Words are powerful. They often define us as individuals and as a society. To hear the return of hurtful slurs in youth assemblies, even if intended in jest, or in social media clips by a possible future president is unacceptable. We must move forward, not backward.

Let us teach our children the value of vocabulary.

Our words are part of who we are.

They matter.

Follow this journey on A Broken Crayon.

Spread the Word to End the Word! You can head here to pledge to stop using the R-word. It’s a step toward creating more accepting attitudes and communities for all people.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: March 30, 2016
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