Tuesday, December 16, 2014


I will never forget that moment. The moment my son's friend used the word gay in a derogatory way as I walked by them. The instant I heard that word as my son clearly heard it too and our eyes locked on each other and then there were no words. Silence. Just silence between two people who were uncertain about how to respond or how to handle the moment.

Yes, this did happen and although it left me feeling a variety of emotions (it was an unsettling experience), it also gave me this amazing and important opportunity to engage in a conversation with my son about how he felt in that moment. Was he uncomfortable? Was he upset? Was my sexuality a source of discomfort for him? What did he wish happened instead? We also talked about how he might handle a situation of that nature when it happens again... not IF, but WHEN because it will definitely happen again. 

You see, from my perspective and experiences, the derogatory use of words like gay or faggot (or retarded or girly or the dozens of other terms) is common place in our society, especially for children in their intermediate schooling years. Heck, I was guilty of using this type of language too when I was his age. But, what words could I help my son access today so he could handle that moment of discomfort when it arises again in the future? We discussed possible responses that he was comfortable with that would communicate his feelings about the specific term or situation. We even role played and practiced using certain words or phrases. We took a potentially painful situation and made it a teachable moment that hopefully empowered my son to successfully navigate an experience of this nature in the future. 

Unfortunately, I am not sure if all the children in our schools have the words to handle uncomfortable situations, personal attacks or just ignorant behavior on the part of their peers. With all this talk about college and career readiness and the implementation of the common core state standards (a questionable experience thus far) and the focus on high stakes testing, I am worried that we are not attending to some of the "life skills" our children need to navigate certain situations and experiences. Specifically, I am worried that we are not taking the time to expose our children to the words they may need to handle a challenging situation. Yes, there is a lot of emphasis on the social and emotional literacy of our students.  We talk a lot about perseverance and grit and how if our kids were taught to embody these attributes, they could meet with success regardless of the obstacles life threw their way. We also talk a lot about things like anti-bullying programs or the Bucket Filling philosophy or the importance of our children being UPstanders and not a bystanders. But, in thinking about how these programs/ideas/concepts generally manifest themselves within our own schools, my concern is that we are focusing too heavily on what not to say or do instead of devoting the time to the words our children may need to handle a difficult exchange, peer or situation.

From my narrow and limited perspective, I think our children need words. They need space to think, reflect, discuss and deliberate. They need the opportunity to role play about how to handle derogatory statements that belittle someone because of their race, class, gender or sexuality. Our children need the words to give voice to themselves as individuals. Our children need the words to express their comfort and discomfort. Our children need the words to successfully question and engage with people or contexts that are unfamiliar to them. Our children need the words to advocate for themselves. Our children need the words to communicate their feelings and needs. 

Do I think equipping our children with words is solely the responsibility of our schools? Absolutely not! I see this as a joint venture between home and school... between families and educators... between adults and children. If we want our children to be college and career ready... actually, scratch that because college and career are just a fraction of our lives; if we want our children to be life ready, we need to give them access to the words.              


  1. Tony,

    Nice share and I'm sure all people that read this can relate to hearing derogatory words at some point. I believe you are corrent when you bring up perspectives. Our kids, check that, our society struggles with empathy (walking in others shoes). What society is god at is judging. I have two boys and your post has me thinking of how do I best educate them on tough topics. I think it comes down to teachable moments and teaching them empathy for ALL people.

    Kids can be very literal and concrete. For example, the book Wonder is phenomenal when it comes to teaching acceptance and empathy. BUT, kids may not see the full message, they may only see the part that talks about a persons appearance.

    Ultimately you've got me thinking. I always want to expand student perspectives and help them walk in the shoes of others. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Tony, this post should be part of a series on courageous conversations. Well done!

  3. Great post my friend. I think it stems from being too cautious about the conversation to begin with and finding the time when that conversation is appropriate. It seems to be like a ton of things in education where we talk about the importance of the subject or initiative or technique or connection, but never go beyond a few people in a room having the conversation. Great modeling for your son...well done!

  4. Tony,
    What a courageous post, and one that makes anyone who reads it think about the words and phrases we use to describe people. It's a tremendous learning opportunity for you, and your son, and a story that should be shared with everyone.
    We should all take a walk in someone else's shoes to see how even three letter words can negatively impact someone.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Amazing post, Tony. Thank you for being so candid and for always contributing to make the world a better place for all of us.

  6. At some point I quit teaching my students like students and changed to treating them more and more like my own kids. That means that I have taken on responsibility for much more than making sure content is learned, but also things that help make them better humans. Truthfully, this is a much more satisfying part of the job than teaching content anyway.

  7. I also wonder how we might be more purposeful and proactive in cultivating character, empathy, and respect in our children. I can't help but think that for every teachable moment we capture from the recess playground, school bus, or hallway...there are likely dozens of other "words" that painfully cut through the air without being caught by the courageous bystander or sage adult. Thanks for sharing, friend. ~Brad