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This Holiday Season, It’s Not Whether You’ve Been “Naughty or Nice” that Counts, but Whether You’ve Been “Inappropriate”

December 28, 2011, 12:00 PM

When did the world turn so “inappropriate?”

It seems to be getting more so by the year.  Inappropriate’s already appeared 26,200,000 times in 2011 on Google-indexed material. In 2010, it appeared a meager 9,670,000 times, and in 2007, only 1,320,000. The growth of inappropriate seems to have progressed faster than the number of Google links generally, but I can’t be sure about that.

Parents like me have the word “inappropriate” in the very front file folder of our brains. "Johnny, that's inappropriate. Jane, don’t be inappropriate." You hear it all the time. I say it my fair share, too. It's a basic component of the parenting toolbox in the 21st-century.

Meaning nothing, the word can mean anything.

Inappropriate simultaneously signals disapproval yet avoids the uncomfortable, parenting minefield elaboration or specification of why we think something is wrong. Its beauty in current usage is that it can singlehandedly encompass behaviors ranging from nose-picking to harassment to serial homicide.  It bestrides the carnival of human failure and perfidy like a Colossus.

I suspect that the addictive use of inappropriate owes something to a hesitancy among enlightened liberal parents to use more specific terms of judgment such as “good” or “bad,” but a simultaneous desire to inculcate moral and social values, good manners, and judgment without… judgment.

Inappropriate sort of gets us there. It’s multicultural, in the sense that “appropriate” is defined almost entirely within the relative world of context. Something can only be appropriate or inappropriate visa vis the norms of whatever context the child finds herself in. It’s an inherently relative term of disapproval.

It also allows us to comment on behavior without making a statement about the behavior, per se, or passing any judgment on the child for having behaved dubiously or brattily.

Maybe we parents are afraid to be too parent-y these days—too judge-y or didactic or, heaven forbid, to yell. Bruce Tulgan writes about managing Generation X, and younger workers, and argues--as he titles his book-- It’s Okay to be the Boss. Likewise, it’s okay to be the parent. A parent, mind you, not a dictator, ogre, or a tyrant!

Fire and brimstone religious conservative parents have much more to work with, of course. They can wield bludgeons like "eternal damnation," "hellfire," "perdition," and they can tangibly name and skewer the "inappropriate" things that we do with lots of moral color: You're not inappropriate. No, you’re BAD, a Sinner, a Glutton, an Adulterer, a Sloth, a Coveter, Prideful, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that being inappropriate isn’t actually inherently wrong or, well, inappropriate. But our (ab)use of it today as a behavioral chide makes it sound as if it is. Being openly gay or lesbian would have been “inappropriate” in its day, for example, as would have feminism. Many a civil rights campaign would have qualified as socially inappropriate to prevailing mores,  too.

But these sorts of rebel subversions of the tyranny of the “appropriate”—or is it the tyranny of the majority?—I welcome, and I’d hope to inculcate some of that rebel spirit in the cause of better ethics and morals into my own child.

The problem is that inappropriate implicitly seems to reduce morality to social conformity. But it’s not always the case.

I guess it wouldn’t matter all that much except that “inappropriate” is so ubiquitous now that it seems to be shaping the young moral imagination. My son uses it himself, and so do his friends—to describe each other’s behaviors, to each other.  It’s amusing to hear, for sure, that word tripping off the tongue of a five-year-old, with unsteady command of its meanings,  but it's troubling, too. You get the sense the kids don’t have much to work with.

I’m beginning to think we may owe it to our kids to equip their quiver with a richer, more nuanced and diverse set of moral arrows than this, and one that salvages an “inappropriate” moment or two as not necessarily bad, and sometimes, in fact, downright righteous.

But whatever the case, here's to the Inappropriate people out there, in all of their discreetly whitewashed failings.

And if you’re only mildly, constructively, amusingly, and imaginatively inappropriate—and not the homicidal, nasty, meany kind of inappropriate--then you’re my kind of people.

I’ll be back with new columns on January 3. Happy New Year!




This Holiday Season, It’s N...

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