I was at an exercise class the other morning when I overheard three mothers talking about the sex education program that was about to begin at their children's school. I was eavesdropping because I wondered if it was me who was teaching the program. (It was a real possibility. I was in a class in my neighborhood.)
Sadly, I didn't find out if I was indeed the teacher of the program that was being debated; I looked strange enough leaning over my bike trying to hear the name of the school. However, I managed to gather one piece of critical information; there was one phrase that these parents repeated not once, not twice, but three times.
"It's just inappropriate."
At that very moment, I decided that I would never use the term again in my personal or professional life.
Perhaps that sounds a bit much. Let me explain.
According to Merriam-Webster, inappropriate means: "not right or suited for some purpose or situation." However, inappropriate has become a catch-all term for every subject that we don't want to - or can't - deal with.
When you don't want to talk about a subject, you call that topic or question: "inappropriate."
When you want to shut down what someone is thinking, feeling, or worrying about, you call it: "inappropriate."
When your child uses the correct term for his or her genitals in public (even if the context and usage is completely accurate), people will respond, "Shhh, that language is inappropriate."
I hear the effects of this in classrooms daily. When I begin a new program (even if it is simple puberty-based education rather than more sophisticated topics in human sexuality), many of my younger students roll their eyes and say, "Why are we talking about this? It is inappropriate."
Why is it that our genitals and reproductive systems are inappropriate (and thus not considered a part of science or health) but every other human system is legit? (Wait! I know the answer. Because those systems force us to talk about sex. And some people think that's not right.)
Many of us spend years, up until the time when our children have their first sexuality education program, telling our offspring that these topics are inappropriate and thus, off limits. But we're wrong.
These issues are VERY appropriate. Sexuality is not only an important and innate part of every person, understanding and expressing it are core components of adolescence. Avoiding the conversation or suggesting that the subject is unimportant does real damage. If we want to define something as inappropriate, may I suggest that avoiding, denying, or lying about sex and sexuality is the perfect example of this.
Inappropriate. Secretive. Private. None of these words help our children. They create guilt and shame, low self esteem, and an unhealthy body image. We may call parts, "private," but you know what kids hear? "Secret." They assume this means we shouldn't talk about them. Even if there's a problem. I prefer, "personal" (and "wonderful").
In case you were curious, I have the same reaction to the phrase, "age-appropriate." Every individual is different. I teach kids who can process sophisticated material and teens who cannot. (I've had adult friends who cannot either.) We have become so concerned with doing what is perceived as "right" by others that we have lost the ability to trust our gut. Our gut should be telling us that fact based education and information are good. Necessary. Highly appropriate.
So let's do better. We need to watch not only what we say, but what we imply. Our kids are listening.