It’s a loaded word.

And we use it all the time in so many different ways…

How could I be so stupid?…then the stupid coffee maker broke…don’t say stupid honey, it’s not nice…don’t be stupid, of course I’ll help with…that stupid dog was barking all night…please don’t say stupid sweetie, it hurts feelings…”

I’ve tried explaining that it’s okay to call a thing stupid, but not people…but that’s not entirely true either. “Your picture is STUPID – it doesn’t even look like a…” Sometimes calling things stupid hurts feelings too.

So we go back to the black-and-white-right-and-wrong-never-always world that makes sense to children.

And we NEVER say stupid.

Until we do. And get corrected or copied. And then remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can. No one is perfect. And we try again.

A few months ago, Eleanor called Oliver stupid.

And what siblings don’t do that? Hurl that easy meanness back and forth without a thought beyond momentary anger? Feelings are hurt. Tears are dried. Sorries are said. And everyone understands that it’s not really true. “Of course you’re not stupid, she didn’t mean that.”

But when your daughter calls her older, special needs brother stupid, there is far more at stake than hurt feelings. Because at age six, Oliver can see that he’s different – that some things come more easily to his classmates. To his little sister. And he understands what stupid means.

Poor little sister…you’re just being a kid. Your cruel words have no agenda. And you don’t really mean it. Even when you do.

In this scenario, Oliver was throwing a blanket over her. Over and over. No matter how many times she asked him to stop. Because sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop. Sometimes he can’t…impulse control issues, you know. But regardless of the reasons, her anger was justified. And she retaliated with angry words.

Oliver is stupid!

And a few minutes later, I heard the yelling and that word, “No YOU’RE stupid! No YOU are because YOU don’t listen. STUPID!” Stupidstupidstupidstupid….

So I sat them down, listened to sides, dried tears, defined words, explained cruelty, demanded reciprocal apologies…and ignored the ice that pierced my heart with that awful, everyday word that I misuse all the time.

We NEVER say stupid. It’s not nice. It hurts feelings.

Minutes later another squabble erupted, and this time it was Oliver calling his sister stupid. It was the first time I ever heard my sweet boy say that word, let alone say it about someone.

There were more tears and unreasonable behavior. Then arbitration. Then defiance.

Then Chris came in, saw all of the ugliness and disrespect for parental authority and sent everyone to their rooms.

This wasn’t a wrong thing to do, of course…but in this particular situation, with these particular children, it wasn’t the right thing either. So we gave each other the “okay, what do we do now?” look, and began damage control.

Since Chris administered the time out, I asked him to go talk to Oliver. Time outs don’t work with our oldest – and if I went to talk to him, then I would just be cast as the one who saved him from that mean asshole, Dad. They needed to work it out on their own. So I went to Eleanor.

She cried and explained. And I listened and agreed. But then I explained (and tried not to cry). And she listened. And finally understood. Why we never say stupid. Because it hurts feelings.

Later Chris told me that Oliver actually asked him, “Daddy, am I stupid?

How do you continue to breathe when your special needs child asks you such a loaded question? How do you answer?

For the first, it takes a lot of effort. For the second, it’s as natural as breathing.  You say no. “No, you are not stupid. Never think that. Never worry about that. You are a very smart boy.”

And Oliver isn’t stupid. So that’s not an ambiguous response. It’s the truth.

But the rest of the truth is, he is different. He doesn’t learn the same way other kids do. Simple Kindergarten crafts are often difficult for him. He has a hard time sustaining the appropriate level attention. He falls behind easily. And he’s starting to see all of this.

During parent teacher conferences last November, I (again) brought up the issue of holding Oliver back a year. He’s currently in first grade and I was astounded that they didn’t think he should repeat Kindergarten. In fact, I would have objected if he wasn’t in a K-1 class. Knowing that he’d be in the same classroom and would spend close to 30 hours doing one-on-one work with a special ed teacher each week, made me feel comfortable with the decision. The only difference would be a label: “first grade.”

But now it’s February. And he’s so obviously not ready to move on to second grade, no matter how many hours he may spend in a resource room. He’s barely working on a first grade level, let alone second grade.

Don’t you have to master a skill set before moving on to the next level – the next grade?

Apparently not.

When I broached this topic, and questioned whether children simply “age out” of their classroom, I got the shocking answer that, yes – in fact, they do. And I suddenly understood what I’ve been hearing for so long. Why people have been talking about kids being pushed through the school system. OF COURSE no one was suggesting that my son repeat a year. All of this time, I’ve been missing the point.

The school’s goal is to advance students through each grade, giving them the support they require to reach their highest potential. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The only problem is that I may have different expectations for my own child’s potential.

Listen – I know that teachers care. I’ve seen this first hand. There isn’t one teacher, classroom aide or therapist working with Oliver whom I don’t implicitly trust to have his best interests at heart. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they love my son.

But he’s my son. No one will ever love him like I do. No one will ever have his best interests at heart like I do. No one will ever see as much potential in him as I do.

So it’s up to me.

There is only so much that his teachers can do. They can’t suggest that he repeat a year when the school system has created a means of him advancing through each grade with help. And now that I understand this, I know what I have to do to help them. Help them help him.

I don’t want Oliver to feel stupid. I don’t want him to think he’s stupid. And while I can’t control how he’s going to feel or think, I can help create an environment that will guide him to better self esteem. And the first step is giving him a little more time to catch up.

When he started Kindergarten, he could barely speak in full sentences. He would wander around the classroom, unable to sit still for more than minutes at a time. He hardly ever asked questions. He played next to other children, not with them.

All of that has changed. In only 16 months, he has accomplished more than I would have ever guessed possible.

His potential is vast.

I can’t predict what will happen next for Oliver, but I can do everything in my power to ensure that he’s given a chance. To see his own potential. To believe in himself. To never accept the label “stupid.”

It’s inevitable that my children will call each other names. And “stupid” is the least of it… But the implications of that one silly word that is misused and overused to the point of desensitization are far too harmful to be ignored by my family.

We never say stupid.

So I wonder where Eleanor picked that up anyway… School? Friends? Me?

Chris claimed it was a cartoon. He said that they were watching Tom & Jerry, and a female cat character – the object of Tom’s affections – said it. Jerry set Tom’s tail on fire during the cats’ date at a restaurant. And when the bewildered Tom wondered what was burning his girlfriend said, “it’s you stupid.”

I was skeptical. Such a common word…so easy to blame it on a cartoon. Far more likely for it to be something she heard at school. From a friend. From me.

But very soon after that, Eleanor was telling me about a funny cartoon she saw. Tom and Jerry…Tom was on fire…”it’s you, stupid.”


Stupid cartoon.

We still let them watch Tom and Jerry. It’s not my favorite – but it’s the least of my worries. I can’t shield them from the word stupid. And cutting them off from television isn’t the answer.

Better to educate them. Help them understand why that word can be so hurtful. When it’s okay to say it…when it’s not… Let them know that it’s okay if they make mistakes – hurt feelings. We all do the best we can. No one is perfect. All we can do is try again…

Right now my job is to give Oliver a chance to catch up. Help him see his own potential. Keep fighting for him.

And I am so grateful for the teachers we have on our side. While their power has limits, I now know how I can help them.

In fact, I just met with them this week. I asked questions and they offered a meeting. There were a few things to discuss, and I brought up my opinion that he needs another year in his current classroom. That he’s not yet ready for second grade.

They said that it isn’t quite as simple a decision as it once was…that administration would have to be involved in the discussion…but that the situation and the student in question would be given consideration. And that there are a number of reasons why Oliver should be given this consideration.

I think that’s a good start.

They love my son. I know this. And it means more to me than I could ever express to them in words.

I hear it in the way they talk about him. Their pride in his progress. Delight in his unique personality. Admiration for his strength of character – his sense of self.

They like Oliver as much as they love him. And they tell me stories about him. Particularly ones that make them laugh. The most recent one came from his classroom teacher who has been with him since his first day of Kindergarten.

She asked me if he was eating enough for breakfast since he often tries to open his lunch bag when he arrives at school. She wasn’t sure if this was because he was hungry or if he just wanted to eat his snack. We all agreed that it was probably the latter. It was noted that he does like his salty snacks…

And apparently, he’s quite partial to the soft pretzels that they sell in the cafeteria. Not that he should even know about them since he doesn’t buy a school lunch… But someone obviously shared a pretzel with him at some point because he does know about them. And he really likes them.

In fact, according to this teacher, Oliver must have made a friend who works in the cafeteria who also knows this about him. Because regardless of the fact that I have always packed a lunch for him – have NEVER sent money for the school lunch – several times a week, she will look over at his table to find him enjoying his own soft pretzel. The ones that you can purchase in the cafeteria lunch line.

So several times a week, my son who has these delays and IEP goals to improve his ability to communicate and relate to other people charms someone into giving him a free salty snack.

Smart boy.

14 thoughts on “Stupid

  1. Christy

    So smart. One of the best things you’ve ever written. Love it. You’re such an awesome mom Kate. You need to get either a book deal, or a magazine column!!!

  2. anymommy

    Very smart boy. The amount and the diversity of challenges and heartbreaks these little people can throw our way astounds me. You are such an amazing mom and advocate and I’m so grateful to learn from you.

  3. Robin from Israel


    You’re both lucky to have each other. We grappled with many of these issues over the years and for what it’s worth, out of all the decisions we had to make over the years, far and away the best one was to repeat a year (kindergarten in M’s case). It was absolutely, positively, without a doubt the right decision. When she did get to elementary school she was able to thrive and blossom. SUCH a difference getting that extra year.

    Whatever you decide for Oliver I know it will be the best choice for him because having a loving, caring, on the ball mom who knows you better than anyone in the world in your corner is the best possible advantage of all.

    PS Have you read this series of posts? If you haven’t, go straight there and read them today. It really helps in framing the discussion with others (siblings, classmates, everyone) and discussing how different people do things/process things/act in ways that are different from our own.

  4. tracey

    Stupid school system and “No Child Left Behind.” It really does screw with the individual’s needs.

    I hate the stigma placed upon holding a kid back nowadays. As though the child will be tormented and suffer unknown tragedies for not moving up a grade! I think the greater tragedy is to be in a classroom that you cannot understand what is going on or keep up. It’s also a bigger strain on the teachers to have to bring a child 2 or 3 levels UP in one year so that he is level with the other kids. That doesn’t help ANYone in that class.

    Good luck and fight strong. If you feel that this is what he needs to succeed in school, then you fight for him.

  5. Leslie

    I’m not sure I have the words to truly express my emotions when reading this post. It was so full, so heavy with importance. I found myself crying while reading it. Our children do that to us, bring out the most powerful of emotions. I hope millions read this.

    Last night my second son came crying to me saying my oldest son was picking on him. It wasn’t as dramatic as he made it sound, and it was only a moment of toy-stealing. But it broke my heart into a million pieces seeing my sons tears and imagining how he felt with his brother “picking on him”. Knowing how that felt, I can’t imagine how the entire name-calling situation felt to you and Chris. Gut wrenching.

    The schooling… I sometimes wish the Lord would just write on a post-it and say “DO THIS: ” That would be so much easier. I’m sorry you have to agonize over what’s best, but I’m glad you’ve started a conversation with the teachers. And I do pray that they do not simply follow the rules and send him through for the sake of sending him through, but that if they do decide he’s ready for the next grade, that they have wonderful, solid reasons that will make you and Chris confident in their help. And if they decide to let him repeat the year, I pray that you and Chris are confident in that decision as well. Whatever you choose, the decision will be made with great weighing of facts, with love and intelligence and he will… be… just… fine. He already is.

    Taking a moment now to pray for these things – the decisions…

  6. anna see

    kate, i could not love this post any more than i do! he IS a smart boy, and you are a great mom. i think of all of the times i did not value j for who he was, and when his teachers didn’t either, and that is a real regret. love you!

  7. Lisa

    So much of this post speaks to me. We JUST had a big discussion about “stupid” here, too…after my 8 y.o. called his 5 y.o. brother (with ASD) stupid. Such a hard lesson…for all.

    I am contemplating holding my son back for another year of kindergarten.
    Oliver sounds similar to my son, Tate…looking forward to hearing more about how your plan goes. Good luck!

  8. Jill

    Oh Kate. I really don’t like the word “Stupid”. So many different meanings. Usually used in such a derogatory way.

    Beautiful post. So wise. So smart. Just like your son.

    And I totally agree with Christy. This is the kind of stuff that should be professionally published!


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