The Four Sons And 'People-First' Language
03/28/2013 - 15:40
Meredith Englander Polsky
Meredith Englander Polsky
Meredith Englander Polsky

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.

Meredith Englander Polsky co-founded Matan in the year 2000 and currently serves as the Director of Training and Advocacy. She holds graduate degrees in Special Education and Clinical Social work and, in 2001, was one of eight national recipients of the first fellowships awarded by Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. She currently resides in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband and three children.

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Being both Jewish and autistic, I also prefer identity-first language. "Person with autism" sounds as identity-denying as "person with Jewishness." The autistic and Deaf/deaf communities in particular reject person-first language in favor of identity first language. This is also more of an issue in English; other languages such as Hebrew default to identity-first. (e.g. האוטיסטים)

Hi, I'd like to mention as a member of the Autistic community that we actually prefer "identity first" language generally - that is, I'd rather be called an Autistic person than a "person with autism". I think a lot of other disability communities do prefer person-first language but the Autism community is more aligned with the d/Deaf community in terms of language preference.

Thank you for your article. I have two special need children and one gifted...I have spent their lives trying to make them feel "normal" but I always feel like I am a salmon swimming up I have your article to is much appreciated. No child is "stupid"..s/he may just be in the wrong learning environment for her/him at that point in their lives...

while I agree with you about the use of the word stupid, I feel you are overcome by PC and insistence on "people first" language, not stupid but silly and meaningless. teach the children to respect everyone and the variance in usage wouldn't matter.

hag sameach. thank you.thank you so much for the valuable lesson. perhaps the four children are actually one child in different stages of development. Or perhaps the four children are the various adults in our lives with distinct skills and contributions to our society. SO many opportunities to envision the meaning of the Hagaddah. Moshe

The concept of the four sons has nothing to do with disability, but rather the four faces of religious observance: The Wise son is one who is observant and knows the Bible; the Wicked son is knowledgeable, but a heretic or one who wants to disassociate himself from Judaism and Jewish identity; the Simple Son is assimilated child who is aware of his/her Jewish background; the Child Who Does Not Even the child of the completely assimilated, who is so unaware/unschooled in Judaism, that he/she does not know where to begin.