At a recent family gathering I found myself talking to a young adult relative about his life. When I asked what he was up to, he replied, “oh, I’m just working.” I wondered aloud why he said “just” working, and asked about what exactly he was doing and his interests. The conversation illuminated that at this event where many of the other young adults were in college or graduate school, he felt like his life story was of less value.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about this little word “just”. When and why we use it in reference to our children’s educational and extracurricular choices — particularly when we are speaking to other parents (and their children). I’ve been thinking about the rising rates of anxiety and depression, the unhealthy pressure many kids feel about grades and college admissions, the narrow notions of success that can drive feelings of inadequacy and shame, and how our language might reinforce these feelings — regardless of our intentions.
Think about the comments below, and when you have heard someone say something similar about their child, or another person’s child:
She’s just on the junior varsity team.
He’s just going to community college.
She’s just working at a coffee shop.
They are just taking regular history.
He’s just a B student.
Now read the comments with the word “just” removed. Notice what changes.
“Just” can convey an implicit comparison to a fixed ideal. Each of the phrases above contains an implied second phrase: What the child is NOT doing (…not on the varsity or club team, not going to a selective school, not taking AP or honors, etc.). “Just” implies that the person in question could be or do better. That they are off track or not enough. This sense of not being enough is exactly what I heard from my young relative at the party.
And, have you ever heard “just” used as a form of humble-brag? For example:
He just got a 31 on the ACT.
They are just taking two AP classes this year.
She didn’t get into her top choice college, so she is just going to (fill in the blank highly selective college).
As a parent and educator, I believe that there are many equally meaningful ways to learn and grow as a student and as a young person. I believe that when children (and other parents, for that matter) are seen and valued for who they are, in all of their messy complexity, beauty, and potential diversions from our expectations, they are more likely to feel the support and confidence to grow. Every child has particular assets to bring to the world, and particular struggles. Comparison does not serve them, nor do the feelings of shame and fears of not being enough. Our use of a simple word — “just” — can fuel these comparisons in subtle ways and send messages we may not intend.
I don’t aim to fully eradicate “just” from conversation. However, I do aim to be conscious of how language can cause (or reduce) harm, and to communicate what I truly value. With “just”, here is my plan:
● When I catch myself using the word “just”, reflect on what I am thinking and feeling. If I say the same phrase without “just”, what changes?
● When I hear someone use “just” in contexts like the ones above, I will say something like, “there is no need to say “just”. Community college is a great path. Tell me about what your child is interested in right now.” Or maybe even (gently) ask “why did you say just?”
● Reflect on how my conversations with other parents and with teens and young adults might fuel anxiety and a sense of competition, or support connection. What do I say that cultivates comparison to other kids and families? What comments and questions express genuine interest and authentic sharing about our children and our experiences as parents? How can I do less of the former, and more of the latter?
● Remember that children are listening, observing, and picking up on subtle cues about what I value (and don’t) about them.
By paying attention to ‘just’ and other language, I believe that we can support one another to remember what we most deeply want for our children: things like well-being, kindness, and being seen and valued — whatever their pathway. I believe that — while there are many things outside of our control as parents — we can make subtle changes that help to reduce the pressure, shame, and sense of comparison with others that can be a burden to many teens and young adults. Our children need to know they are enough. I think this is what many of us, as parents, want too.
Perhaps starting small, even with one simple word, can begin to change the conversation.