A school district’s words matter

A school district’s words matter
Facebook account of Michael J. Hynes, Port Washington Schools Superintendent

Words matter. The message they send by their selection is crucial for understanding someone’s perspective. The message they send by their placement is also quite telling.

The Port Washington School District has been promoting a film on what it calls the “free play movement.” District resources are endorsing and advertising the perspective advocated by this production, explicitly saying that “every family, teacher, administrator, school board member and policymaker should watch it.”

Such use of government authority in pitching a special interest group borders on the propagandistic, but that’s not even the top concern here.

Included in the district’s promotion is a quotation, presumably from the film’s producers. This reads in part that “In a world of structure, stranger danger, helicopter parenting and a focus on accomplishment, the fundamental learning of today is nearly being erased.”

Now, honestly, that “In a world” makes me smile. It’s so laughably cliché as a movie trailer that I truly appreciate the chuckle. Everything that follows is considerably less amusing. “[S]tructure, stranger danger, helicopter parenting and a focus on accomplishment,” is the dark cloud descending on idyllic childhood. I assume this because “stranger danger” is the term we all use with our kids to warn them of pedophiles and serial killers.

So that’s the level of dread these other specters are presumably meant to invoke. This level of melodrama makes “In a world” seem positively whimsical.

Look at those other words, however. Alongside the pedophile and serial killer scare, this lists “structure,” “helicopter parenting,” and “accomplishment” as parallel bogeymen. Let’s take those one at a time.

“Structure” seems relatively harmless. Any parent who has set a bedtime or mealtime has imposed structure upon a child. Yet the word’s direct positioning next to “stranger danger pedophile serial killer” suggests something nefarious. I suppose any parent who has set a bedtime or mealtime is complicit.

“Helicopter parenting” has a similarly negative connotation. Its singularity as a noted kind of parenting, moreover, implies a broader scope. No other kind of parenting earns notice.

Perhaps it’s not a subset. The worrisome conclusion is that all parenting is unfortunately susceptible to the helicopter epithet. Ergo, parenting is evil on a level with, and underscored by its syntactical proximity to, stranger danger pedophile serial killer.

Finally, having rhetorically built through these various evils, the peroration reaches its climax in the ultimate evil, “accomplishment.” This is the dread. This is the apex. This is the cataclysm to which stranger danger pedophile serial killer is only a spark. This is what Port Washington Schools appears dead set on preventing at all costs.

Parenting is evil. Accomplishment is bad. School officials will be the arbiters of these facts. Got it.

Any school district official is perfectly within free speech rights to advocate for any philosophy they please. Any policy-making official is duty-bound to explore a liberal scope of philosophies in developing a plan for the school district to pursue.

But any government official, of any level, who uses the authority of public office to push a single personal agenda hostile to the public itself demeans that office. Any school district that equates the most elemental acts of parenting with violence against children is guilty of more than just a gross misuse of language.

Words matter. The context in which they’re used matters. We should all be more careful with our speech. We should all take care that our words don’t destroy the schools that some claim to protect.

Douglas Parker
Port Washington

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