There we were, gathered around the granite-topped island in Molly’s kitchen: four women at the end of a long day. We each had stories to share, requiring listening ears and commentary from our girls. We were all very aware that my four year old goddaughter, Kate, was happily ensconced on a tall chair at one end of the counter and adjusted our language accordingly. Or so we thought until Colette was interrupted, mid-sentence, by a reprimand. “Colette!,” Kate chided. “That’s a bad word!”
Playing back Colette’s sentence in my mind, I couldn’t even find a bad word. All eyes turned toward Kate, who could tell from our blank faces that we weren’t sure which word was the “bad one”. She half whispered, “Stupid. It’s a bad word.”
Oh, yeah. THAT bad word! The toddler equivalent of an extremely nasty epithet. Colette dutifully apologized, and our conversation continued. If any of us doubted that Kate was listening intently to our adult chatter – jobs, co-workers, family issues – we were quickly disabused of that notion as she regularly corrected our use of that “bad” word.
Stupid. I was struck by several thoughts as our conversation continued. First, that most of us were consciously watching our language selection, self-censoring what we considered expletives and replacing them with more acceptable alternatives. Second, it was disconcerting how frequently the word we settled on as a replacement was “stupid”. The stupid meeting. The stupid guy. The stupid idea. Finally, I arrived at the realization of something that all parents and preschool teachers already know: allowed unchecked, use of the word “stupid” (and variations such as stupidhead), will proliferate at an alarming rate. It is arguably the first, and for many one of the most potent, put-downs we learn.
Almost immediately upon learning the word stupid, and discovering its value as an insult, we are taught that it is impolite and inappropriate to apply the word to others. That’s how powerful the word is: parents and educators work diligently to keep us from using it as a weapon with which to bludgeon others. Unfortunately, we are rarely taught not to apply it to ourselves.
As I thought about Kate’s adamant correction of our conversation, it called to mind the many ways fear of the word stupid – and my willingness to use it against myself – have negatively impacted my life. Not wanting to appear stupid has kept me from asking questions, from trying new things, from approaching people I admire for guidance and/or mentorship. It has prevented me from putting my work out into the arena (in the Teddy Roosevelt sense), kept me from daring greatly (in the Brene Brown sense). Fear of “stupid” has kept me playing small.
This fear of being seen as stupid has kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken. In some cases, it has been misinterpreted by others as quiet strength, as understanding rather than confusion. It would be a lie to say I hadn’t encouraged that sort of misunderstanding in order to preserve the illusion (possibly only existing in my own head) that I knew or grasped more than I did. Anything to prevent them seeing my stupid!
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to agree that children should be taught that to call someone or something stupid is inappropriate. And being a grown-up doesn’t suddenly make it alright. So I’m going to work on striking it, as much as possible, from my vocabulary. If the conversation at Molly’s is any indication, that won’t be easy for me!
Equally important, we should also be taught not turn that weapon on ourselves, either. We (I) need to stop fearing it will be used against me, and I need to stop hurting myself by using it as a self-accusation. “Stupid” is another trigger to exploit our vulnerabilities and reinforce the notion that we must be perfect before we venture to put ourselves, thoughts, skills or talents out into the world.
I try to imagine what my life might be had I been less afraid of “stupid”: had I been willing to give voice to my questions, to publicly proclaim my ideas, to publish (or even submit) my written work for review and critique. The world may or may not have been a different place because of it. But I’m fairly certain that I would be a different person had I not been avoiding “stupid” at all costs.
“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead