Understanding Teen Slang
Kim Hoelzli of Thamesford, Ontario, doesn't mind much of the slang used by kids these days, but she did put a stop to them saying, "My grandma is pimpin'!"
"I know if something is pimpin', it's a good thing, but it just didn't sound right, you know?" Hoelzli says.
Slang words have been in use since the beginning of language. Slang can be playful or cruel. It's used as a euphemism for drugs or sex. For kids, slang often acts as a secret vocabulary that allows them to fit in with their peers while attempting to keep their parents out of the loop. The popularity of instant messaging, text messaging and pop culture as seen on MTV has taken slang to new levels.
In the Know
Some parents cringe at the idea of their children using anything but proper or formal language, particularly around adults. "I'm fine with most kids using it when they talk to each other – kids need to have something they feel is their own," says Joyce Anthony of Erie, Pa. "I don't approve of its use around adults or when talking to adults. It seems disrespectful to me."
However, it is good for parents to know not only what their kids are talking about, but also how their kids are talking, says Jonathan McKee of The Source for Youth Ministry. "Parents should be aware of what terms are harmless and what terms are harmful," he says. "So many of these phrases are drug and sex references." To help parents understand their kids' language, McKee helped found The Slang Dictionary, an on-line reference source.
As Kim Hoelzi has learned, in today's language, "pimp" means "cool," not someone who hustles a ring of prostitutes. On the other hand, says McKee, "if parents hear their son talking with his friends about 'hitting it' the other night, then they're going to have to have a serious sit-down talk with him." The term hitting it, according to the Slang Dictionary, means having sex.
When to Worry
While most slang is harmless – or at the very worst, annoying – parents do need to be aware of ethnic, sex and drug slang. These are the words that kids use as code to hide behavior from their parents. For example, a couple of middle-school-aged boys were talking about rainbows. The parents who overheard the conversation thought it was a little odd, boys talking about rainbows, but they otherwise ignored the conversation. Later, the parents discovered the boys were actually talking about receiving oral sex from a number of girls who wear different colors of lipstick.
Although most sex slang is universal, drug slang tends to be more regional or ethnic. "Drug slang operates more like a special language used to disguise what's going on," says Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of Cursing in America: A Psycholinguistic Study of Dirty Language in the Courts, in the Movies, in the Schoolyards and on the Streets (John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1992). "It separates those who know from those who do not know about drugs. Like true slang, the terms become obsolete and have to be replaced by new terms."
On the Bright Side
Jay also says that just because your kids use sexual slang or drug slang "does not mean they are sexually active drug users. It means that most of their peers use this kind of language and to not be hip to the jargon is to be a nerd, an outsider, a goody goody. Most teens don't want that."
"I don't think slang, in itself, is harmful," says McKee. "Where slang becomes harmful is when it creates even further distance between teenagers and their parents. Parents need to seek to know their kids. The best gift we can give kids is our time. When we seek to get to know our kids' wants, their desires, their likes and dislikes, their music, their language, that shows them that we want to get to know them."
It also helps to have a sense of humor about kids and their use of slang. Kim Hoelzli tells the story of one of her son's friends who said his sister didn't join the swim team because she was "stacked." "Now, I know he meant that she was busy, but I had a picture of her bust being so big when she tried to front crawl, it dragged her down to the bottom of the pool," says Hoelzli. "I suggested [to my son's friend] that he might want to rethink using that one. He told me I had a dirty mind."