As a 3rd grade rebbe [Hebrew teacher] sometimes I have children in my class who have lost a parent...I wonder if in such cases I should avoid using the word totty [daddy] or mommy during class to avoid hurting the child. Is this something that is helpful or perhaps avoiding it is just something that is not realistic and unfortunately it is something they will live with all their lives?
Your sensitivity to others prompted you to ask this question. Specifically, your sensitivity toward the children in your class causes you concern about the impact of your words. Though this is true for anyone in any situation, kids in a classroom environment can be particularly vulnerable. They are in a social setting where they may compare themselves (and their reactions) to others. But they are also in a structured setting where the rebbi is king.
In 3rd grade, kids often still view their parents and teachers as all-knowing and close to perfect. A teacher’s actions and words can be more impactful than intended. This, combined with the social aspect can make the classroom seem emotionally charged for some kids.
Generally speaking, it is important to try and identify those children who may be more susceptible to emotional reactions in the classroom setting. Doing so will allow you to be sensitive to the specific needs of each child.
Every child has different needs and insecurities. Some kids who have lost a father, for instance, may wince inwardly when fathers are mentioned. This may be due to the pain of loss resurfacing; it may be the sense of being different from the other kids; or it may be for another reason or a combination of reasons.
Since no two children are exactly alike, there is no universal answer to your question. Some kids may feel more isolated if they sense that your verbiage has changed because of them. Others may feel appreciative of the fact that you are concerned enough to word things carefully. Yet others may not notice at all.
Sometimes when we get stuck on propriety, social appropriateness, and political correctness, we can lose sight of what may otherwise be very clear. When your question is considered academically, we can come up with many theories of how to act in certain situations. When the question is considered, however, with a particular child in mind, you may find that focusing on what you know of that child’s personality, insecurities, and other observable reactions will give you a clear sense of their needs.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317