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The Four Sons and ‘People-First’ Language

Meredith Polsky

Written by Meredith Englander Polsky, this post originally appeared in The Jewish Week’s blog, “The New Normal“, March 28, 2013

Two of my children attend our local Jewish day school, and we carpool with a family who also has two kids at the school. Spending about an hour in the car together each day, we have become a tight-knit group and the kids (two first graders, a second grader and a third grader) have coined the phrase “carpool family” when referring to one another. As such, it has become a safe place to get ready for the school day, ask questions, discuss a wide variety of topics, get silly and unwind. My co-“carpool mom” and I share similar values and expectations, which is to say we place a high value on safety in the car, respect for differences among people and the tone of the language we use in carpool and at home.

So when the word “stupid” became the most utilized word in the car one afternoon last week, we were both a bit taken aback. It’s not that our kids are mild-mannered wall flowers who follow every rule at all times, but in each of our homes, “stupid” is known as the “s-word.” It’s just not used.

Earlier that day, in their studies about Passover, one of the classes learned about the four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. But, the teacher allegedly used the word “stupid” to describe one of these sons. It thus became fair game for carpool, and our long-held assertion that “stupid” was the “s-word” was unilaterally dispelled.

Every year at our family seder, the notion of the four sons troubles me. Each year when my kids learn about them, it feels like a missed opportunity. Can any child really be summarized with one terse label? Can any individual be described so succinctly?

As advocates for children with learning differences, we often talk about “people-first language.” For example, we talk about a “child with autism” but not an “autistic child;” we refer to “children with learning disabilities” but not “learning disabled children.” The differences may seem slight. But we use people-first language to recognize the whole person and not identify him/her by any one ability or disability. So, too, we can think about the four sons of the Passover seder as parts of a whole.

It may be – for now – that our Jewish educational institutions are not yet ready to welcome every type of learner in their midst. That may be considered – for now – as too costly, too time-consuming, too challenging. But creating environments where language is carefully selected, where differences are respected, where there is an understanding that there is no such thing as “one right way” or “one smart way” – well, those things don’t cost anything. Yet if we don’t take the time now to model tolerance for our children, it could cost us everything.

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