Last fall, my five-year old daughter looked intently at her computer screen and exclaimed, “Hey, I am NOT a GUY!” In that moment, she realized the inadequacy of the phrase “you guys” to describe her beautiful existence on this earth. Something was not right. She could feel it.
At the time, both of my daughters were studying remotely. My days were punctuated with Zoom related screams directed at – yes, me, Mom. But on this day, my first grader decided to yell at one of her beloved teachers instead. A welcome, albeit brief reprieve.
While I do not encourage yelling at teachers – in fact, we revere teachers in our home — I was proud of her that day. Why? Because, at such a young age, she had not only spoken her truth to power. She had put into practice a basic yet profound idea we spend a lifetime learning — our words matter.
Words are particularly powerful when said by a parent or a teacher to a child. Words influence our sense of self-worth and signal whether and to what extent we belong in this world. Words also allocate power and privilege, something which is vastly underappreciated. Often, we only realize the impact of our words after the fact. How they have inspired or hurt, empowered or undermined, validated or erased.
With her scream, my daughter not only highlighted the disconnect between “you guys” and her glorious sense of self, but also raised broader questions that deserve contemplation. Should we really be saying “ you guys”? Is this an appropriately gender-inclusive term? Do our children embrace this language, or has it been thrust upon them?
Now you might think, what’s the big deal? After all, everyone says, “You guys.” I mean, isn’t it an all- encompassing phrase, which refers to everyone, irrespective of gender? It is literally everywhere. We hear it from family and friends, on the news, in the movies, and on the radio, as well as from our political, community, and religious leaders. It’s not just men who say it. It’s used by people across the political spectrum, and by people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. I identify as progressive and feminist, and yes, I say it!
While the pandemic has brought unimaginable suffering, it has also precipitated profound awakenings. Many people have become more connected to what really matters in their lives and have made changes accordingly. I have had the privilege and the challenge to engage more intentionally with my role as Mom, which admittedly, sometimes came second to my role as a professional.
Shortly after being home full-time with my daughters, I realized that they were defaulting to male pronouns to describe the world around them. A cute dog walking down our street was a “he.” A deer in our front yard, again he. Even a butterfly visiting our garden, was a “he.” And they were also saying “you guys” to refer to people. I was disheartened to put it mildly.
While I had deliberately reduced my usage of the phrase “you guys” with colleagues in the workplace, I continued to say it at home. Even in relation to my daughters. So, I admitted that I was part of the problem and explained to them that using the term didn’t make any sense. My daughters immediately agreed that Mom was wrong, yet again.
When you really think about it, saying “you guys” is confusing at best. At worst, it sends the wrong message. It tells any child who doesn’t identify as a “guy” that they are invisible. It is somehow acceptable to subsume their existence under the male gender. It’s like saying mankind to refer to our common existence. “You guys” not only reflects the pervasive gender inequities in our society exacerbated by race, class, nationality, and religion, it also perpetuates the gender inequities that still permeate our society. While people’s intention when using the term “you guys” might not be to contribute to this cycle of devaluation, it is nonetheless the impact.
Language has always been a part of the struggle for equality and for justice more broadly. Oppressed peoples have reclaimed words once used to dehumanize them to effectively build their personal and political power. Words have also been used to guide and mobilize movements. With just two words, the MeToo movement brought millions of survivors into a community that cared about their healing and celebrated their power to make change. The Black Lives Matter movement has energized an international groundswell of activism focused on racial justice. Yet, I remember reading an article and learning that the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement were repeatedly told by “pundits and peers” not to use that phrase. Alternate phrases were suggested. However, it is precisely the words – Black Lives Matter — that are most needed now to guide this country towards a long-awaited reckoning on race.
I’m truly thankful my daughter recognized the problem with using “you guys” last September. Children have an uncanny ability to awaken us to the change that needs to happen at the individual and societal levels. When they share their honest critique, we owe it to them to listen.
Since my family’s awakening, we’ve been holding each other accountable for not saying “you guys” and growing our consciousness together. We have engaged in productive and extending conversations with family, friends, and educators. My daughters are often the ones taking the lead. In the process, they’re learning important skills about how to speak up for themselves and how to connect to their power.
Many academics, journalists, activists, and influencers have already written about why we need to stop saying “you guys.” My hope is that people will not only shift their language in the workplace, but also in the home and at school. By changing just a few words, we can finally give our children the gift of being seen, in their entirety, so that they can grow into their truest selves.