In a conversation with some 8th grade girls this week, I casually mentioned that I was “looking forward to meeting my son’s new gf.” My comment was met with disapproving silence. One girl turned to the other and asked, “Did she really just say ‘gf’?” The other nodded her head sadly. One of them then turned to me and said, “Mrs. Acuna, you can NOT say ‘gf.'” “Why not?” I asked (knowing full well the answer). “Because!” she replied. “That’s OUR language, and you’re not allowed to speak it!” “So,” I said, “I’m supposed to KNOW your language but not use it, is that correct?” “Exactly” was her response, and all the girls nodded.
Today I explored the topic a little more with a whole roomful of 8th graders. They couldn’t really tell me what was so bad about parents speaking their language; they only knew it was “embarrassing” and “just wrong.” I heard complaints about parents who say “S’up?” or “Fo’ sho'” or “Suh-weet!”
This is not a new concept for teen-agers. The words have changed – you might remember “cherry,” “groovy,” “far out,” and “cool” – but the rules have not. Teens want – no, make that DEMAND – the right to speak their own language. It’s okay for the adults to be familiar with the words, but actually using them is unacceptable.
That’s not to say the adults can’t have some fun with the language. By last summer I had grown weary of hearing “I know, right?” When we went on vacation in June, I began saying it constantly in response to my sons, until I drove them bonkers. “Mom, you do realize you’ve totally ruined that phrase for us, don’t you?” they complained. Smugly, I acknowledged that was my intention. I hardly heard it for the next several weeks, which was actually very amusing.
Sociologists call it “differentiating.” It’s all about adolescence being that transitional period when teens are trying to leave childhood behind. To do so, they have to get out from under the direct influences of the adults in their lives and begin relating more to their peers. After all, their peers are the people who will enter adulthood with them. When the adults in their lives try to speak like them, it violates a crucial boundary.
Language isn’t the only thing teens reserve for themselves. Clothing, music – even certain foods or drinks – can be considered off-limits to the adults in their lives. It’s okay to be in touch with what’s going on in their world, but don’t expect to be allowed to play. We’ll just have to be content with speaking like adults, at least when there are teens within earshot.
Let’s all say it together: “I know, right?”