3 simple ways to teach your kids language that helps, not hurts.

Let’s teach our children to use respectful language, instead of language that hurts.


I come from a family where asylum seekers, indigenous rights and marriage equality were everyday dinner party conversation topics.

My mother raised me and my two sisters to value ourselves – our rights, our bodies, our choices – highly. Our father, in his own more fuddy-duddy way, raised us the same way.

He was less opinionated and strong in his teachings about women (do people ever fight as strongly when it’s not their fight?) But he still supports us in our wish for equality and freedom, fighting with us where he can.

So, as a child, I was admittedly more headstrong and politically minded than most of my peers. Most clearly, I remember being made fun of for being a tomboy in primary school, and for wanting to play football with the boys — only to be told by year sixes that I was ‘just a girl’.

Just a girl? Just a girl? Even as a prep, that astounded me. I was a girl and I was damn proud of it.

How could it be, when I lived around so many other people who were proud of it – my parents, my sisters, my best friend Remy (who was already taller than half the year threes and told everyone in no uncertain terms that pink was his favourite colour) – that somehow being a girl was a bad thing?

I walked away from the oval, Remy pulled out some Pokémon cards and I stopped caring about the stupid game.

But, still, you’re just a girl was there in the back of my mind and it didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t.

“You’re just a girl.” Language that hurts those around us is so normalised by society that often only the people it actually hurts notice it.

That one stupid sentence was presented as a reason as to why I couldn’t do something. It’s a reason as to why people of my gender can’t do a lot of things. Because we’re just girls. It’s just language, but it’s language that’s damaging.

As I grew older, I noticed a trend in how a lot of people in my everyday life speak. The way people use, casually and callously, language that is derogatory, demeaning and discriminatory to get their view across. Because think about it: how often have you heard comments like these in your day-to-day life?


“You’re just a girl.”

“That is so gay.”

“I raped that test in maths.”

Language like that, which hurts those around us, is so normalised by society that often only the people it actually hurts notice it.

That has to change.

And for those of us who are mothers, carers of young children and teachers (or teachers-in-training like me)? The most effective way to do that is to teach children how to use respectful language instead of language that hurts.

So how do we get kids to care about this? How do we engage them?

Well, by spending time with a wide range of students, I’ve found that many of them have a fair few similarities. And I have an inkling that if we tap into those kid-characteristics, we can teach them that essential life-skill – the use of respectful language.

So, here we go.

1. Remember that most kids innately hate injustice.

Of course, a child’s view of justice is quite different to mine; but if he or she thinks something is unfair they tend to say something about it.

They are interested in learning new things (but only if you don’t tell them they’re learning). Kids are way more receptive and interested in new knowledge if it’s not being shoved at them. So, how about sitting kids down and letting them discuss an issue, either by themselves or with parents and teachers? I find this works far better than making them do a worksheet or read a huge block of text silently.

“Using the diverse ancestry and history found within your kids’ classroom is an awesome way for them to mutually learn about different parts of the world — and their own ancestry,” Lola suggests.

2. Give them access to people with vast and varying backgrounds and teach them to share their own experiences

Instead of children knowing only about their grandparents, how about they learn about everyone else’s?


Using the diverse ancestry and history found within your kids’ classroom is an awesome way for them to mutually learn about different parts of the world — and their own ancestry. Next time you’re in a group situation with your kids’ peers, think about starting a discussion about family stories and watch them all learn.

3. If a child shows an interest in explaining an interesting new topic of skill, encourage that and let them talk it through.

Next time you have your kids’ friends over for a playdate, letting the young ones share whatever skills they may have is a great way to inspire confidence in them. Even better, it might inspire other kids to share their knowledge.

This is also a great way to find out where each student is at with their knowledge, so you know what you (or their teachers) need to be teaching them!

While a lot of the things we might want to teach kids about the world aren’t really age-appropriate for primary-schoolers – we can’t easily teach them about the damaging nature of rape jokes, about exactly what happened in WWII or about why people are so mad at the Syrian government – what we can impress upon the spongey little minds we’re around every day is to be careful with the language we use.

So, let’s use these characteristics of kids to help them grow into better, more worldly people. Because interacting with kids isn’t just about feeding, making sure they get enough sleep, getting their ABCs and times tables into their heads, and sending them off.

It’s about helping a group of young minds explore, discover and develop an entire world of possibilities – in a way that helps others, rather than hurts them.

Lola is an ardent cat lover and feminist in equal measures, who likes attempting to educate children almost as much as she enjoys pretending to be one. In future years, she hopes to teach primary students and live in Northcote, Melbourne, with 10 cats.

On a related note, the You Don’t Say campaign by Duke University in the US highlights language use that marginalises sexual and gender minorities. Here are some images from the campaign, brought to you by Duke’s Blue Devils United and Think Before You Talk: