The following story is an example of how speaking carelessly to children can have consequences beyond the scope of our imagination.
In my work as a native language teacher I have to visit many different schools and often blend into the daily activities at the schools. Last week I visited a child at a preschool I work at for our weekly lesson of Danish. So on this particular day I walked into a daily gathering with a bunch of three year olds whereof one of them is the Danish boy that I’m teaching. We were sitting there in a circle and the preschool teacher presented me to the children that didn’t already know who I was. She said: “This is Anna, she’s here to teach Danish.” And I said: “That’s right, I’m from Denmark.” In that moment a little boy sitting across from me in the circle, looked at me with a very concerned and serious look. He said: “But there’s a song called “Stupid Denmark!” – – I had never heard about this song and so I simply laughed. The teacher explained how a student from our city had created this song because Denmark recently had won the Eurovision song contest and that the song had become very popular. The boy looked perplexed and I started saying how the people who created the song were just jealous and that it wasn’t serious. The teacher cut me off and neatly swooped the point under the rug by saying that ‘we take turns winning’ in the song contest. The boy however didn’t seem satisfied and quite sternly looked away from me as though he despised me from the moment he heard I was from Denmark.
Now this incident is seemingly very ‘small’. It was a split second on a normal day in a kindergarten and tons of similar incidents and situations occur all the time. But after the incident, I kept returning to it in my mind, seeing the little boy’s face change when he heard that I was from Denmark.
Consider how hearing something like “stupid Denmark” as a small child can affect the way you see someone by associating them with this word without having any common sense context – and now consider how many things little children hear on a daily basis that perhaps are said as a joke or casually uttered by an adult that doesn’t consider how small children can’t differentiate between something that’s serious and sincere and something that’s not. I remember for example as a child where, after my mother had explained to me how important money was and how we needed money to survive, she told me one day where I asked for a toy that “We have no money.” Now – obviously she meant it figuratively or in the sense that we didn’t have enough money to buy me this particular toy. But for me as a small child, I took what she said absolutely literally and understood that we really had NO money at all whatsoever. And because she had explained the importance of money, I remember that I was petrified that we would not survive, that we wouldn’t have food and that we’d lose our house. And here I was around five or six years old.
And so when I looked further at the incident with the boy at the preschool I could see how many potential consequences that this seemingly ‘insignificant’ point could have. Because it was quite obvious that the boy had a reaction. He was almost shocked to hear that I was from Denmark, because he had already created an association between the word ‘stupid’ and ‘Denmark’, not at all understanding that the song was meant as a joke. For a three year old (and for most people in our society) the word ‘stupid’ is certainly a big deal because it’s been given quite the stigma. No one likes being called ‘stupid’. So for this young boy, this point had become a taboo already and it looked as though he was completely dumbfounded by someone admitting to be from Denmark, considering how Denmark is ‘stupid’ lol. Fascinating.
So now considering the consequences, this little boy now perhaps creates an association between the words ‘stupid’ and ‘Denmark’ and now me because I said that I was from Denmark. I could for example see how he looked at me in resistance and dismay. Now, since I’m not going to work with this child it doesn’t have much consequence to my work that he now has created an association to me as being ‘stupid’. However he’s going to be in school side by side with another young boy who happens to be from Denmark like me – and it is obvious that this is the kind of stuff bullying are made of. Many children throughout the world are exposed to similar biases towards points that are completely random: wearing classes, being cross-eyed, or having red hair or a different skin color. All because the adults in their lives have no idea how their words affect the children and carelessly throw around biases often in jokes that children have no capacity for understanding. I remember for example how long it took me to understand irony and sarcasm, because for the first many years of my life, I took the words people spoke absolutely literally like in the example above where my mother told me we had no money. And in a way, that’s how it should be. We should speak directly and frankly to each other, meaning exactly what we say. This would make communicating a lot more effective, to not have to first decipher a person’s words and intentions to then interpret what they mean. I would even go as far as saying that such sarcasm is absolutely unnecessary and only exist in a world where we’re afraid of being upfront and direct, but also where we’re afraid of being vulnerable and intimate with one another. Humor is unfortunately also used as an easy way to get away with bullying and abusing others without risking to stand accountable for one’s words.
A study by researchers on Chicago university showed that children who learn context-specific words are much more likely to develop an effective vocabulary. What this means is that when babies learn the words that pertain to their immediate reality as that which is here in the moment – their vocabulary develops a lot more effectively. This indicates that it is not effective for children to learn words that are abstract and disconnected from their practical reality because they have no frame of reference of contextualizing such words and obviously there’s a great risk that they will integrate the words with bias, for example as in the case I’ve described here, where this little three year old boy now has defined the word ‘Denmark’ as ‘stupid’ because he took what he heard literally. He probably doesn’t even know what Denmark is yet, that it’s a country in the Northern hemisphere. All he ‘knows’ is that it’s ‘stupid’. And what is even worse, this bias can now become something that affects how he sees Denmark and everything connected with Denmark for the rest of his life. This is thus exactly the stuff racists are made up. When he grows up, he might experience an innate resistance towards Denmark and everything associated with Denmark, without remembering why he has this experience. And this can limit his life and his interaction with others because he now has a biased outlook on something that exists in practical reality. And this is really just an example – because consider now a child’s total vocabulary and how many words and associations that aren’t biased in one way or another.
Lastly – I also found the way the teacher dealt with the situation to be highly ineffective. Because she could have actually taken it upon herself to remediate this bias through discussing with the children why this song was created, how it was a joke and how people sometimes say stuff like this about others because their jealous. Obviously this might be a little too abstract for a three year old to understand, but she certainly could have done more than to sweep the point under the rug with niceties. However – here a point to consider is that preschool and schoolteachers in general face hundreds of these kinds of situations every week and it is common to develop a way to deal with such issues by giving children a half-assed explanation instructing them to ‘be nice’ or ‘be friends’ – which actually giving them no real practical instructions for how to understand words or make accurate associations. Teachers do in no way have the capacity to effectively work with these points, partly because they’re not trained and because their own vocabularies are biased and partly because of the conditions in which they work with having to teach many children at once in a fast paced and rushed daily schedule.
This leaves us with a generation of children, just like our own, whose vocabulary and outlook on the world is entirely consistent of and contaminated with biases that they’ve randomly picked up without any instruction or guidance from the adults around them. It is no wonder then that people become racist or that their relationships fail or that they get into seemingly unmotivated arguments with strangers in the supermarket or in traffic. We walk around believing that the vocabulary we have developed is accurately referencing the world around us, but we have no idea how extensively biased we see our reality and each other and how this limits how we move in the world and how we interact with others.
The solution? A greater focus on and understanding of the importance of developing an effective vocabulary, starting with the responsibility of parents towards their children and teachers towards their students. But all of us can consider this as we interact with children and even as we speak while there are children around who can hear what we’re saying. So I suggest to investigate this next time you’re in a room with children, whether in the doctor’s office or at a barbecue with your neighbors. Observe the words being spoken. Observe how the children cling onto every word because they are fervent about getting to know and understand how the world works. And then let’s make a decision as a adults to stand as responsible examples to children – showing them how the world works in fact instead of carelessly shoving a biased and inaccurate vocabulary down their throats.
I furthermore suggest investigating the DIP Lite coursewhich is a free online course where one can start practicing and working with through writing, decontaminating one’s vocabulary through firstly finding how what biases one has accepted as accurately depicting reality and then to redefine this vocabulary so that what we see and speak in fact is accurately referencing reality.
Natural Learning Abilities blog series – a MUST READ!
At Desteni we’re presenting two solutions – one directed towards changing our world systems and the bullying and abuse taking place at a global level. This is the Guaranteed Living Income System. We are also sharing a process that we as a group and individually have decided to walk, to become dignified, trustworthy and caring human beings, through getting to know and understand how our minds work and how we’ve become who we are today, so that we can stand up and change. This is called the Desteni I Process.