Using the Word “Retard”
But in some ways… maybe many ways, this isn’t going to change things. I am prepared to argue that the use of word “retard” as a pejorative is most common (although grown ups make this sort of error too) among teens. I want to focus on that in this post. In my view, there are rather unique motivation factors that influence teen behavior and make this behavior particularly likely.
There seems to almost be a mystique attached to teenage verbal misbehavior by our culture. References are made to hormonal imbalances and changing brain structures as if layman’s appeals to the medical model are somehow a sufficient answer in and of themselves.
In contrast I tend to look at the fact that teens are by definition at a point of transition. The simple and often direct contingencies of behavior management that have governed their lives up till this point are being faded and more cognitive or delayed rule-based-behavior contingencies are replacing them. Concepts, memes, and ideals become increasingly important. As these shifts take over, the teens become more able to discriminate contradictions, exceptions, and inconsistencies.
However, until these discriminations are firm, there will be uncertainty as to what constitutes acceptable limits of a given contingency. The teens will, as we say “test the boundaries”. Moreover, if a teacher or caregiver adds in a simple contingency to counter this, there may well be an inadvertent counter contingency. This happens all the time with swearing. It is punished when emitted in front of a teacher, but reinforced in the presence of peers. This reinforcing aspect is possibly increased by aggression reinforcers, based on a time when emitting the same word was punished. In other words, the more it is punished in one situation the more reinforcing it is in another.
I have spent a fair amount of time working with teens both with and without disabilities. It seemed the more I discouraged the use of this term the more the teens employed it. Some used it, I think; to get a reaction out of me. So, I made a classic mistake. I increased the severity of my reaction. Whereas before, I gave a verbal reprimand, I now gave written write-ups. This did eliminate the behavior around me, but it continued when I was not around. I wonder in the end, if my actions made a lick of difference in this regard.
Upon reflection maybe there was another strategy. Maybe instead of punishment I could have employed a specific explanation illustrating the rule based contingencies that controlled my own behavior. In other words, I could explain why I chose not to use the word “retard” as a pejorative. This may or may not result in a shift in the contingencies.
Ultimately, if I am correct about the managing contingencies, then strategies where the use of the word “retard” is turned into the equivalent of a swear word, will only increase the usage of this expression.
There is yet another strategy too. I think it is inevitable that many teens are going to at one point or another emit comments that are rude, cruel, or derogatory toward an entire classification of people. Perhaps then, another strategy is to tolerate the misbehavior to degree. This does not imply acceptance, it implies that we understand that this is likely to be an age specific misbehavior that will be intrinsically countered as maturation occurs. If this is true, then our duty is then to provide appropriate models of the verbal behavior employed by adults in our society.