Embracing Respectful Language

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” –  Old Chinese Proverb

Foster kid… Cringe

Foster child… Ouch

Foster children…

You might as well as wrap us up in a spider web of doubt and confusion, negativity and pain, pity and heartache – not given a chance when chance is all we have.

As a former youth in care, who spends each and every day of my life journeying alongside current youth in care, I feel confident in saying that words hurt, especially when they label in a way that brings immediate judgment. Misled perception through limited knowledge or inability and oversight to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes is like stepping on the spider.

It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I dare told some of my friends that I was a “foster kid.” I was embarrassed. Didn’t know if they would like me anymore. Wasn’t sure if they would turn their backs. Fearful they would think that my foster parents were “not my parents.” Nervous they would feel sorry for me. Interestingly enough, that hesitation to share hasn’t changed for me or among countless youth who just want to be introduced and included in society as Melissa or Bobby or …?

The “foster kid” label generates a body jerk to those who are, or were, in the foster care system. We hang our heads or shift eye contact in the abyss of shame, anticipating the explanation that is likely to follow: an immediate, “ooohhhhh, oooooo.” The label envelopes the person in negativity and devalues the person as an individual. Is it fair to be judged in negativity, before someone meets the real you? Is the use of this term even relevant to the ordinary daily experiences of a child?

Recently, I contacted Kathie Snow of Disability is Natural and BraveHeart Press. I quickly realized that she is extremely passionate about new ways of thinking about children and adults with disabilities. She embraces and promotes People First Language, which simply and respectfully puts the person before the disability as it describes what a person has, not what a person is. “It’s all about respect and dignity, and the Golden Rule-treating someone the way you want to be treated-not political correctness,” she explains.

Kathie and I discussed the importance of applying People First Language ideals to the foster care system. Interestingly it was only a matter of time before we realized an important connection: many children with disabilities are placed in foster care! Can you imagine referring to someone as, “TheDown syndrome foster kid…”? Whoa! He or she wouldn’t even have the opportunity to be seen as a real child before someone reacts to the label in ways that shout “exclusion” or “different.”

As a society, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we marginalize people by the language we choose to use. Within the foster care system, we seem to routinely put our youth in a box with our words. As a result, they’re displayed to the world-and to themselves-in a way that needs footnotes, defense mechanisms, and a step back before going forward. Do they not have enough to deal with-through no fault of their own-without this additional burden?

Language is powerful and emotional. Along with the tone of delivery, facial expression, breath and body movement, language not only describes, but leads to attitudes and actions. As Kathie says, “Throughout history, it has become necessary to change our language and the way in which we refer to individuals and groups to avoid further oppressing those members of society.”

Kathie and I bantered about the lingo: “Youth in foster care” or “Youth who receive foster care services.” A good start is to simply say, “kids, child, children, youth.” A child’s name would work-isn’t it the most important descriptor? Referring to a child’s status in foster care should be used only when it’s truly relevant. Are they foster kids when at dance class or during sports or at school? No, they’re ballerinas, hockey players, and students.

I was excited to Google “respectful language law” and find Respectful Adoption Language (RAL), “vocabulary about adoption which has been chosen to reflect maximum respect, dignity, responsibility and objectivity about the decisions made by birthparents and adoptive parents in discussing the family planning decisions they have made for children who have been adopted.” I invite you to join me in creating respectful language for youth in foster care.

Vision For A Change…of semantics. It’s about respect. It’s about belonging. As Kathie notes, “Our personal feelings are not as important as the feelings of the people we’re talking about and the perceptions of them we create with our words.” Foster care descriptors are important only in the foster care world, not in the real world where children live.

Kathie adds, “When we speak differently, we’ll think differently, and then we’ll act differently.” Let’s ensure the descriptors we use promote inclusion, elevate confidence, and create belonging for all. Youth in foster care, as well as former youth in foster care, are brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, moms and dads, employees and employers, friends and neighbors, and everyday people. Most importantly, they-we-are all people first.

People First Language was created by individuals who said “we are not our disabilities.”  Let’s transform that spider web to spinning a golden quilt of acceptance. Our youth are people first.

Source: Lynn Price, Executive Director, Camp to Belong.  Reprinted with permission of the author.

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