Last week I overheard an adult call a very young child “weird,” and for a behavior that was totally typical. Seemingly from out of nowhere, rage took over, outspoken-style.
“There’s no need to say that,” I sputtered, ineloquently. “You don’t just tell a little kid they’re weird. That’s just not fair to a kid. Don’t ever say that. Just don’t.”
Reacting quickly, a friend made a joke about a deep-seated chord the comment must’ve struck within me, giving me a chance to redirect myself, which was good because I was reeling. What is weird? What is not weird? Who of us can judge that? And why would we bother when we have our own lives to live? We’ve got to take better care of each other than that. (I’m included in this admonition, btw.)
Later, reflecting on my vehemence at “weird” being used against a tiny kid who was quite the opposite, I located the reverberating chord: I’ve felt like the weird one so often in my life and, in my younger days, I wish someone would’ve stepped in and said, “No way! Emily, you are totally not weird—you’re awesome.”
And so, for me, it comes to this: “Weird” is just another notch on a bully’s belt. It may seem an innocuous barb, and it’s certainly colloquially widespread—even good, kind people use it—but the kids who are repeatedly christened as “weird” are the ones who end up being so psychologically battered that they commit an act as horrific as a shooting. Or a suicide. Or maybe they harm one of their physical features because someone says it looks weird. Or maybe they sleep with someone who doesn’t care about them, with echoes of “You’re a virgin? That’s so weird,” in their head. Or maybe they pretend to be dumb so they don’t come across as ultra intelligent (read: weird.) Or perhaps they don’t know how to be who they are so they use drugs to give them a more acceptable identity. Or maybe they can’t bear the idea of being labeled as “weird,” so they deny their true sexuality and endure a lifetime of suppression.
Unfortunately, unless a kid is immensely self-assured, the one wielding “weird” is in the power position. I know grown women who still shudder about that one girl from way back who always rolled her eyes and casually said, “you’re weird,” as if it were a divine pronouncement. And, from where the women sit now, they know better, but at the time, they struggled. As we age, we get a better handle on our own inherent individuality. And we start to notice that a lot of the people worth knowing, and certainly all the people who change the world, are a little bit weird. But as a child, that word can be a death sentence.
Weird is a word that leaves too much to a child’s imagination and so, unless the weird one is sufficiently supported emotionally, a young person’s natural response to being called “weird” is to presume that he or she is in some way defective. Defective.
However, the truth is that what’s “weird” about one person usually is something that merely makes another person feel uncomfortable, unpleasant or put off while, in fact, the behavior, feature or quality in question may be quite typical. What’s more, in other circles, the “weird” thing might be completely “normal.”
Babies are born every day and they’ll grow up to be different, each of them, but they’re all here for a reason. There’s enough in this world—including the harsh determiners of good and bad at all ages—to drag a kid down. Kids will be kids, and kids will say mean things as they explore their own sense and sources of power in the world, but as adults, we can show our kids how to be comprehensively kind. We must teach them how to stand up for peers who need backup, and that can start with something as simple as the words we choose.
At the very least, as adults we have the skills to be mindful of the words we cast upon children. Though we may toss them out innocently, labels have power. So enough with the “weird.” It’s time for us to take better care of each other and our children. Now.