Silly. This word has been on my mind a lot lately. A friend of mine brought it up when she witnessed someone call her child “silly” after deciding to sit on the ground next to the car at carpool. Her child wasn’t being “silly” at all; she was actually having a difficult time, feeling tired and overwhelmed, and was in need of some empathy and help. Ever since my friend’s story I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the word “silly” and how it’s used. I’ve also become very cognizant of my own use of the word “silly”, and I’ve paid attention to how my daughter uses the word too. We’ve had some interesting converstions about the word “silly” over the past couple of weeks. Here’s a few bits of these conversations:
Me: “what does ‘silly’ mean?”
Daughter: “it’s when you do something to make someone laugh.”
Me: “what does it mean when someone says, ‘you’re so silly’?”
Daughter: “it means you’re being funny, even when they don’t want you to.”
Me: “do you like to be silly?”
Daughter: “Mhmm. I like to have fun.”
Me: “what do you think of being ‘silly’?”
Daughter: “it’s okay. sometimes it’s fun to be silly.”
…and most recently, “mom, this is silly” (makes a funny face and noise), “you try it” (she pauses while I do my best imitation). “no, that’s not silly. you don’t know how to be silly.” Oh, ok. LOL
And then I wondered, “what is it about this word that has my attention?” Of course, the obvious part was in my friend’s story: sometimes we ignore what’s really going on with children, and just call their behavior “silly.” Usually this happens when we’re tired or distracted. It might feel like a playful way to acknowledge our children’s behavior; an attempt to acknowledge them and avoid being critical, demanding, or derisive. I’ve been there. I get that.
But what does my child “get” when I call her behavior “silly”?
My daugher comes running into the room where the adults are talking with a skirt on her head, mismatched socks and performs her own little jig while singing her favorite song (this really happened while we were visiting Grandma in KY).
She’s displaying creativity, sponteneity, and playful energy; she’s looking to connect, entertain, bring out smiles and engage with us…and she succeeds! We laugh, connect, and have fun together. But how would this scenario play out if I responded by saying, “you’re so silly”? Maybe nothing. Except she begins to label these gifts as silly – all this creativity, sponteneity, playfulness, connection, engagement, it all gets labeled as silly. And if I REALLY think about it, the term “silly” would really be just a way to brush her off. It would stifle the connection and engagement. It would create distance.
I understand how the term “silly” can also be very benign and even create connection. Last night a friend of mine came over for dinner with her daughter. After dinner my friend said, “it’s ok to be silly here. Let’s be silly!” And so the girls made funny faces and noises, they jumped and squealed and laughed. We all felt very connected and engaged with each other. So what’s the difference?
The difference is the meaning or intention behind the word. And this is where it gets dicey. How an adult interprets language can be very different from how a child interprets language. For that matter, adults miscommunicate with each other all the time! So language IS very important. So here’s some things I try to keep in mind when I choose the language I use (which isn’t to say I don’t screw up…good grief do I):
I know lots of loving, beautiful, amazing people…teachers, therapists, childcare workers, friends, myself, etc. who casually use the term “silly.”
“Why are you so silly”
You’re blowing air over your tongue
You have so much energy
You are very excited
Wow, look at that