This morning, as I neared the end of the first mile of the run in a sprint triathlon, I overheard a conversation that nearly made me stop running to address it. This particular sprint triathlon is the most community focused and supported that I’ve ever seen. During the bike piece of the race families sit out in their driveways and cheer everyone who comes along. Near the start of the run there were many chalked words of encouragement on the path (including two that stuck with me: “My running form could best be described as drunk woman running away from no one,” and “Stay calm and try not to die.”). It’s a race that is full of spectators encouraging the athletes along the way.
So I was not surprised to find a young boy, about 5, his older sister, his dad, and his grandparents along the side of the path, likely waiting for his mom to run by. He was holding a stick and, between runners, threw it across the path. It didn’t quite make it to the grass on the other side and his sister asked, “What kind of a throw was that?” His grandfather then said, “That was a girl throw. I thought you were a pitcher.”
I truly did nearly stop. I wanted to ask this grandfather why he was suggesting to this young boy that girls are not capable athletes. Why he needed to make doing something the way a girl would do it an insult to his grandson. Especially with his granddaughter standing right there. Especially with a large number of women of all ages running past in a triathlon.
The words we use with children are powerful. Every single word. We often think they aren’t listening but they are. And they are processing and taking in what we are saying. They are getting the underlying messages that we, clearly, aren’t considering.
I tend to be hyper aware of what I say to children and hyper aware of my tone, facial expressions, and body language. Which is not to say that I get it right all the time, or even a great majority of the time. But I try to think about what the child is actually going to take away from what I am saying. I know that, far too often, the message can be quite different from what I’m trying to say if I’m not careful.
Messages about gender and race and religion and languages are especially powerful. Children are trying to make sense of the world around them and they turn to us for help. The problem is, we often help when we don’t realize we are doing so. If we aren’t conscious, or attempting to be conscious, of what we are saying, we are highly likely to reinforce societal ills and problems rather than help our children look carefully at the world around them.
One of my all time favorite professional books, if not my absolute favorite, is Peter Johnston’s Choice Words. It, and his follow up, Opening Minds, are the books I give to interns with whom I work. I try to reread them every couple of years. Johnston takes a careful look at what we say to students and what they actually hear in our words. His two books are quick but powerful reads.
As I head into our first day of school together, with my new group of third graders, I’ll be hearing that grandfather in my head as a reminder to be thoughtful about the messages I send.