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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kids Book Leads to R-Word Discussion

I knew I would eventually have 'the talk' with my kids about the R-Word. (For those not in the know, "r-word" refers to the word(s) retard(ed)). I just wasn't expecting for it to happen now (with Lucas only being 6); and I didn't expect the conversation to be spurred on by a kid's book.

Ever since I discovered my children enjoy listening to audio books, and since Kayla was going to vision therapy two times a week after school (30 min each way), I have been checking out audio books for us to listen to on those drives. 

A few weeks ago I checked out The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull. I hadn't heard of the book or author before, but thought the description on the back sounded interesting enough to keep my kids' attention.

The first chapter had me muttering "What the heck kind of book is this? What did I check out?" It did not start off in any way that I was expecting. The first chapter was basically a description of what sounded like a hit man and his tools of the trade.

We continued to listen to the book as the second chapter introduced the kids who are the main characters. Throughout the next several chapters I again found myself wondering what kind of book this was - i.e. 3 of the main characters (5th graders) have a 'club' that the 4th character wants to join. When he asks what they do in this club they basically explain breaking and entering into buildings. When he remarks, "You steal stuff?" the girl explains that of course they don't steal stuff, they just like to explore places they shouldn't be. Or something like that. I don't remember the dialogue exactly, but that was the premise and I remember being disappointed that these were the main characters.

So along with the main characters there is another small group, I think 3 kids, who are the bullies.

We were in the parking lot getting ready to go home, after a great time at the Buddy Walk no less, and I was half-listening to what was going on in the story when all of a sudden I heard this dialogue from one of the bullies to one of the other kids:

"Actually," Denny said innocently, "I came over because I need a favor. See, I'm supposed to do an oral report about retarded kids, so I was wondering if I could follow you around for a few hours. Do a little firsthand research."

This was very obviously meant as a derogatory, mean, spiteful, put-down. This was obviously using the word to make fun of someone. It also wasn't necessary. The author already established that this group of kids were mean and bullied other kids by previous encounters and conversations in the book. As I always do when I come across someone using this word in a book or movie I think, "You're a writer. You have so many other words you could've used in place of this one. Doesn't your vocabulary expand beyond this?"

I reacted right away and immediately ejected the disc from the player. I told the kids I was sorry but we just weren't going to be able to listen to the rest of the story. I was a bit flustered and unprepared and probably overreacted, but I was caught off guard. I wasn't expecting to hear that word used in that way in a children's book.

After a minute we continued to sit in the parking lot and I decided to talk to my kids about what happened and why I was upset about the book. They had no idea what happened. The word and the context went right over their heads. It wasn't a word they had heard before, but it didn't make them stop and ask me about it either.

I didn't know where to start and I'm not sure I did a very good job of explaining to my kids, but I tried. I repeated back what the character said, the context he used it in, and the intent behind using it. Lucas asked me, "What does retarded mean?"

How do I explain that to my innocent kids looking back at me from their seats? How do I explain how degrading and hurtful that word has become to describe people like his sister? How do I explain it to Kayla?

On a very basic level I said that all the word means is to make slow. It was used by doctors to describe people who have an intellectual disability and having an intellectual disability just means that it takes you more time to learn. But over the years people have taken that word and used it as a slur against other people; they have turned it in to a bad, ugly word and now it is used to make fun of people.

I told them I feel strongly about the use of that word and choose not to listen to music, books, movies etc that use that word and I couldn't, in good conscious, continue to let them listen to that book. For one thing I had no idea if it would be used again throughout the book.

I'm not sure how much they understood, and I'm not sure I reacted the right way, but I hope this can be the beginning of open dialogues with my kids and they know that we can discuss serious topics and talk about why we don't use certain words, or behave a certain way.

When we got back home I looked the book up online to see if maybe this was intended for a higher age group (although I still wouldn't have condoned its usage), but it's not. It says ages 8 and up. And it was only published in 2009, so it's not like it is an older book either.

Needless to say I was extremely disappointed in this author's decision to use the word retarded in his children's book - and to use it disparagingly.

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Sabrina Steyling said...

I am very surprised - and appalled, of course. Stuff like that is absolutely unnecessary - and what exactly is that teaching kids? Mr. Mull needs to do a reality check!

Megan Landmeier said...

As a teacher, I'm surprised at a book using the r-word for that age group, especially a book written in 2009. In YA books, it sometimes bothers me less (i.e.,in Wonder, where it fits in the storyline.) But a book for kids who hopefully are too young to know what it means? No way.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

Wow. I'm surprised at the choice of words in a children's book, but glad that you turned it into a teaching moment not just for your kids, but by writing about it here (again). You rock.

Crystal Rhew Staley said...

Very disappointing.

Kerri Ames said...

How awful. Like you said, the book was written in 2009 and geared for 8+ one would think a person smart enough to write a book would be smart enough to find another word. I'm so very sorry you had to have the talk now, but I am glad it happened when you not only could share the importance but show Lucas and Kayla how much you believe in standing up to the "R" word that you ejected the disc.

I also have to ask did you scream at the librarian?

Katie Watson said...

I'm going to defend the book -- we read it this summer and my 5 year old is a huge fan!

One thing I liked about this book, as a parent, is that the kids in it made some pretty big mistakes. That led to some good discussions with my son about who to trust, who not to trust, and when to tell someone if you're in over your head. At 5, he was a bit young to catch all of the motivations at work in the book. But he loved the stories of the magical candies, and he understood that the kids involved could have saved a lot of trouble if they had told their parents or teachers about some of the things going on earlier.

The passage in question also spurred a discussion when we read it. We talked about who said the R-word (a kid who was being mean, a kid who made many other bad decisions in the book). And we gently used it to tell him that sometimes this is a word that is used to be mean to people like his 1-year-old brother (my boy with Ds) who take extra time to learn.

It's a lot to hear at 5. But a few months later, when a high schooler my son respects used the R word in front of him? He looked back at him calmly and said, "I don't use that word." Bless his heart, hearing that from a 5 year old, one with a brother with Ds no less, schooled that teen better than any lecture the parents could have concocted.