14 05 2012

A prevalent characteristic can become a defining characteristic and ultimately a confining characteristic.

“My son sure is hard on clothes.”

“He’s a boy.”

“Huh? My other son isn’t hard on clothes at all.”

“Well, then, he isn’t a normal boy.”

Sigh. That word again. Normal.

It is normal for human beings to display wide variation in characteristics. It is normal for individuals of each gender to vary widely in behavior, departing from statistical averages. Both my sons are normal, thank you very much.

I wouldn’t quibble, since “normal” is actually just a way of describing a statistical average, the peak of the bell curve, if it weren’t for the pejorative connotation of “not normal.” Excellence is, by definition, abnormal. But one doesn’t hear hushed, concerned conversations about how Johnny’s consistent success at making the honor roll is not normal, the way one does that Johnny’s inability to speak at age four is not normal. Not normal implies that something is wrong.

By saying that Johnny’s complete lack of interest in trucks, guns and competitive sports is not normal, we are implying that something is wrong with Johnny.

And think of what it implies when a woman says with pride as Susie comes tottering out wrapped in pink and balanced on Mommy’s high heels, “She’s all girl!” What does that imply about the daughter of the woman next to her, who prefers books to dolls, and is upstairs playing computer games with the boys? Is she less of a girl, then? Something else? Something inferior?

We need to watch how we say things, what words we use. Because we are communicating much more than merely an observation about statistically significant characteristics. We are passing judgement. And others, children in particular, feel the message.




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