When A Teenager Called My Son A Retard

Whether in partial jest or full-on bully mode, it’s just not okay.

What does a bully look like?

We imagine him bulky and gruff, sinister and sarcastic. He’s the extreme - either poor and defending his self-esteem by lashing out at the weak, or rich and lording his excess over the less fortunate. That’s bullying, right?

What if the bully is just someone’s kid? A camp counselor even? Dressed in preppy khakis and a private school polo?


“Mom, can I talk to you for a minute?”

I could tell within a few seconds of picking up my son from his sports day camp that something wasn’t right. As we walked toward the locker room where he ended each day gathering his backpack and lunchbox, he stopped me next to the bleachers.

Tears started filling his eyes.

My momma bear awoke from hibernation, steely-eyed, claws just under the tips, ready to turn and pounce once he identified the source of the tears. Nodding, I silently waited for him to share.

Whispering, “Someone called me a name today.”

Okay, I thought, name-calling. Run-of-the-mill parenting stuff. We can figure this out.

Claws retracted.

Crafting the perfect reassuring and proactive response, I wasn’t prepared to get mowed down by a verbal eighteen-wheeler.

“He called me a... a... retard.* One of the counselors called me a retard.”

The tears flowed.


As it turns out, the “R word” wasn’t the only insult used, but it stung the worst.

My kids are familiar with insults used for those with cognitive impairments. We’ve talked about them. I wanted them to understand if they heard them, especially in reference to their brother (with Hunter Syndrome), that the speaker is intending to degrade the person to whom he’s speaking.

It doesn’t matter if that person is “normal” or not, it’s intended to say, “You are stupid. And I’m laughing at you.”

If you know our story, some of you may have read the title and assumed it was our son with cognitive impairment who was targeted. And now that you see it wasn’t, you’re somehow relieved. Don’t be.

“But some people just casually throw out the ‘R’ word,” you might be thinking. “They don’t intend to be mean. They didn’t know your son had a brother with cognitive differences.”

That’s like saying they casually threw out the N word to my light-skinned son, not knowing his father is black.

It... just... doesn’t... matter. It’s... never... okay.

Whether in partial jest or full-on bully mode, it’s just not okay.

And so, to the teenager who called my son the “R word” and more:

Dear Brian,**

Thank you for your note of apology. I wish I hadn’t had to ask your coach and your headmaster to make you write it. I wish you had realized the damage that words can inflict. Your words. Or better, I wish you had known not to say them.

I can’t say that your parents raised you badly, or that you’re an un-redeemable, spoiled youth. I don’t know your story. And you didn’t know ours.

But now that you do, I hope that it will stick with you. I hope that it will remind you that everyone has a story. And that speaking life and encouragement into others is what makes you a man. Not degrading others to puff up your ego, especially younger kids who look up to you.

My son Case, who suffers from Hunter Syndrome and cognitive challenges as a result, just wants to be alive when he grows up. More more information, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
My son Case, who suffers from Hunter Syndrome and cognitive challenges as a result, just wants to be alive when he grows up. More more information, visit

And if you think of using the R word again, I want you to picture this child, and realize that you’re saying:

“Case - You are stupid. And I’m laughing at you.”

I doubt that’s the man you want to be. I doubt that’s the man your mother and father want you to be. I doubt that’s the athlete your coach wants you to be. I doubt that’s the alumnus your school wants you to be.

But we all make mistakes. I forgive you. My son forgives you. His brother forgives you.

If you’d like to better understand what it’s truly like to live with, or alongside, cognitive differences, our door is always open.


A Mom


How do you make sure that your child won’t be the subject of a letter like this? Later this week, I’ll follow up with the post: “A-E-I-O-U: 5 Steps to Raising an Inclusive Child.”

This post originally appeared on, where Melissa blogs about the light and the dark of her journey as a parent to a child with a rare disease. Follow Melissa on Twitter @melissajhogan.

*I use the full word here only in context of what was actually spoken. I want readers to feel it and wince. We sure did.

**His name has been changed, not to protect the innocent, but to offer grace and forgiveness.