by Melanie J. Davis, EdD
Can a dictionary harm children? That’s the question being asked by a review panel for Oak Meadows Elementary School in southern California. The panel will try to determine whether to prohibit the use of the Merriam-Webster dictionary by fourth and fifth grade students. The review is in response to an individual mother’s complaint that the dictionary’s definition of oral sex was too explicit.
I support parents’ right to evaluate school curricula and resources, and I applaud this mom’s efforts to protect children from information she found offensive. After all, I complained that my daughters’ high school’s pre-prom safety workshop for boys focused on preventing alcohol use, while the girls’ workshop taught self-defense techniques to help the girls fend off their dates’ sexual advances. I wanted both the boys and girls to learn about the importance of asking permission and respecting a date’s answer.
So we’re on the same page here, I’ll present the definition of oral sex published in the online version of the dictionary: “Oral stimulation of the genitals.” That’s it. Five words, as straightforward as can be. I expected something much more salacious, given the mom’s level of concern and the school’s reaction.
The incident reminded me of being in elementary school and being told by friends that the dictionary contained dirty words. I immediately pulled out the family copy and looked up the only dirty words I knew at the time — butt, breast, and poop. I’m 100% sure that kids today do it, too, because they are previous generations of children.
Language is constantly evolving, so dictionaries are updated regularly to add new terms. Yes, the current editions may include words some parents find offensive or inappropriate for children; however, these are words that kids hear on the playground, on TV shows, in movies, and in music and video games. Those games and songs, by the way, have some of the most anti-female and degrading language and imagery possible. The ability to look up those words in a dictionary enables children to learn what words mean without being judged by adults or teased by friends.
Parents don’t need to censor dictionaries to control their kids’ vocabulary. Simply model the kind of language you find appropriate, and call attention when words are used that you find inappropriate. When you offer an explanation of why you want your child to avoid certain words, you have a great opportunity to share your values.
Schools shouldn’t jump every time a parent complains, either. Some of the best books for children have been offensive to one parent or another, and we need to rely on the reasoned and educated judgment of teachers and librarians to select developmentally appropriate resources for their young population.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll suggest that if you can’t find the word you’re searching for in the dictionary on your bookshelf, visit UrbanDictionary.com. Your kids will find it soon enough.
Melanie J. Davis, EdD, CSE is the founder of Honest Exchange LLC, a sexuality education consulting firm in Somerville, NJ. Visit www.HonestExchange.com for free resources, book recommendations, and Melanie’s book, “Sexuality Talking Points: A Guide to Thoughtful Conversation between Parents and Children.” Melanie offers private consultations in person and by phone as Director of Education Services for the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness at NJSexualWellness.com.