It’s Important to Explain Why “That’s Inappropriate!”

I don’t remember the phrase “that’s inappropriate!” from when I was growing up. Maybe it wasn’t used back then – or where I grew up in Canada. Or maybe I was just such a good girl…. Hmmm. But I must admit that it’s been a very handy phrase around our house over the past few years for things like: the use of “stupid,” excessive burping or bottom-waggling, and “toilet” humor – particularly at the dinner table.

Now, at our house, use of “that’s inappropriate” often gets good behavior results all on its own. Nevertheless, a recent incident at my son’s afterschool program highlighted how a great phrase like this can get over-used and become an excuse for not communicating properly with children when we are uncomfortable or don’t know how to handle a situation.

The “Situation”

One afternoon, at the school’s extended-care program, Elliott and his other 4th-grade friends were discussing characters from books like the “Percy Jackson” series. He’s read all the books and has become quite interested in and familiar with Greek Mythology.

Apparently one of the names they had come across was “Oedipus” – a tragic figure who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother (he had been given up for adoption as a baby) – made famous through Freud’s psychoanalytic “Oedipus Complex.” Although the boys didn’t know any of this back-story and only mentioned the name, their aftercare group leader heard their discussion and sharply told the boys: “That’s inappropriate!” Unfortunately her comments ended there – and my son’s confusion and sense of injustice began.

That evening, in relating his story, it was clear that Elliott really wanted to know what, if anything, he had done wrong. “If Oedipus is a character from Greek mythology, why would talking about it be inappropriate?” he asked. I told him that the conversation probably made his group leader – who was young and fairly new in her job – uncomfortable, since a famous doctor from over a hundred years ago created a theory called the “Oedipus Complex” to describe a mental illness when a boy loves his mother too much. “Too much?!” he proclaimed. “But aren’t we supposed to love our mothers?!” …..Hmmm. “Yes,” I said. “But Oedipus married his mother.”

The Outcome

Since Elliott’s response to that was “Ewww,” I concluded that he’s not suffering from the aforementioned complex – despite the fact that, at the age of two, he did say he wanted to marry me! We agreed that there probably wasn’t anything really inappropriate about Oedipus but that it was best not to talk about him at school, since some people clearly found the story disturbing. I don’t know if this was the right approach, but it seemed to satisfy him. And I did base my strategy on two common pieces of parenting advice for “socially-sensitive” subjects (like sex):

  1. Don’t make a big deal about the issue – or your kids will
  2. Communicate openly but don’t give them more information than they need or asked for

Now, I do wish that his aftercare teacher had handled the situation differently, but it did remind me that I also need to be careful of too-frequently reaching for the “that’s inappropriate” crutch. And I got a wonderful opportunity to practice my “sensitive-subject” skills. So I guess that’s ok.

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About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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  1. […] another “inappropriate” incident at school. If you read my post from December 9, 2011 entitled, It’s Important to Explain Why “That’s Inappropriate!” you’ll know that I feel this term has become something of an excuse for avoiding challenging […]

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