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'Mommy, What Does the Word Retarded Mean?'

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“Mommy, what does the word retarded mean?”

My son Ethan is 5 and a half. He started kindergarten this past fall and has been coming home asking us about all sorts of things, good and bad. He doesn’t ride the bus just yet, but the classroom has already exposed him to all sorts of words and stories that his curious mind wants to know more about.

When Elisa was born, we explained to Ethan that his sister was different. We told him she had Down syndrome and tried to explain to our 4-year-old what that meant. “She has an extra chromosome and it might take her a little longer than most people to learn to do things.”

Ethan is so proud of his sister and her diagnosis. When we are out, my precocious child will engage strangers in long conversations with big, adult words. Often, the conversation turns to “how cute your sister is” and Ethan will proudly announce that she has Down syndrome. At that point, most people get nervous and things become awkward. I am grateful Ethan is still pretty oblivious to this. I always feel a mixture of pride and sadness when Ethan announces, “My sister has Down syndrome.”

Since Elisa was born, I have been bracing myself for the time when he would realize the world isn’t always excited by his sister’s diagnosis. That time came last Sunday.

My mom, Ethan and I were headed to the store. I was driving and Ethan asked, “Mommy, what does the word retarded mean?”

I think this is a difficult conversation for most parents. I think this conversation can be 10 times harder when considering a developmentally disabled sibling. I can’t say I was totally prepared for this. I tried to make Ethan understand that the word itself isn’t the problem so much as the meaning people attach to it. I explained the history of the word, that originally it was a medical term and people adopted it to replace words like “stupid” or “idiot” to make it hateful. We talked about how it shouldn’t be used and how it’s possible that someone might use that word to talk about Elisa. I like to think we had a meaningful, memorable conversation. He seemed satisfied with the explanation and moved on to a new topic.

It makes me sad that in 2016, I have to explain to my son what a word means within the context of hurting others. A word when used by definition may not be offensive, but when used as a casual adjective takes on a very different meaning. There are so many words to describe something that is “stupid” or “silly” or “unpopular” — of all those you could choose, you need to use “retard”? I can’t believe the number of adults I encounter who regularly use hate speech, calling things “retarded.” I struggle when this is addressed and I see eyes roll or hear it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal. It is disrespectful. You should be embarrassed that your vocabulary is so limited that you struggle to find a better, more appropriate word than one intended to marginalize entire groups of people.

I am not easily offended and by no means am I the word police. All I am asking is if you find you are using hateful words in your daily vocabulary, try to be more aware that what you say can hurt people’s feelings. Try to learn a few new appropriate words. Imagine you have a developmentally disabled child — would you want people to use words that by definition describe them to call something “stupid”? I would hope not.

When you use the word retarded, you are talking about my daughter, Ethan’s sister. If you had to explain why you chose that word over another to Ethan, how would that make you feel? I don’t want to believe people intentionally use these words; maybe it’s habit or you’ve never really thought about it. Think about it now. Resolve to do better. Make the world a friendlier place for all people.

Practice inclusive, respectful language when speaking. Take the pledge spread the word to end the word:

ethan and his sister

Follow this journey on Down Right Happy.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. 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 24, 2016
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