As happens many days around my house, a group of boys congregated after school to play outside. Some of them are second graders like Tommy, but most of them are older. Sometimes it's basketball or football. On the most interesting days, it's ZOMBIE ATTACK! Today it was Ball Tag. Ball Tag is played by trying to tag another player with the ball so they are "it" and you no longer have to be. In the interest of fairness, I suggested that instead of one kid being "it" they use 3 balls so they are playing on loose teams and no one is singled out for any long period of time. They agreed this would be more fun and after patting myself on the back, I drug my toddler kicking and screaming inside so he wouldn't get trampled by the melee that was about to ensue. He got over it after a dose of Bubble Guppies and goldfish crackers, btw.
Game play seemed to be going along well as quite a few giggly and out of breath boys ran in and out of my yard through our two gates. But after some time, instead of laughter or squeals, I heard angry tones. I had to investigate. Seems as though one of the kids said the 'N' word. I'm not sure that it was directed at one person in particular. But it was said. Many of the kids, including my son, stood on the periphery while the boy who fashions himself as the neighborhood police (sometimes bully) took the lead. He told the bad word boy that he was offended and that he had to go home despite the bad word boy's apologies and tears. At first, my inclination was to tell them to get over it and keep playing. But then I stopped myself because as much as I hate seeing a kid cry (probably because he knew what he did was wrong), I let the bad word boy get on his bike and peddle home.
Tommy ran over to me and asked excitedly "What's the N-word?, What's the N-word?". He hadn't heard the boy actually say the word and was still somewhat in the dark about the confrontation. What word could have been so terrible that they had to kick a friend out of the game? Tommy asked me if the N-word was "negative" and all I could think of was "YES, YES! This is what I want you to think the N-word is because you are still sweet and innocent and only seven years old!!!". My son still believes in Santa Claus, but I had to tell him what the N-word meant.
I waited for reinforcements and after dinner my husband and I sat Tommy down. We explained that he wasn't in any trouble. We told him what the word was and that he was never, under any circumstances, to use it. We explained that it wasn't like "shit" or "damn" that would be viewed by some people, especially at school, as rude. The N-word was deeply hurtful. We had to tell him why it was so hurtful. He thought the word sounded funny, like something in a joke. We had to explain to him again why it was so hurtful. We told him other people, in music lyrics or in movies, might use the word. But we expected that he never would.
He cried. It was intense. I'm not sure why he cried. Was he sad that the bad word boy said the word, perhaps about his other friends? Did he really grasp why the word could be so hurtful and feel the guilt that so many of us feel when we understand why the word exists? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure that we did the right thing by telling him. But what I am sure of is that my son grew up a little more today.