The use of the words “retarded” or “retard” as slang is certainly discriminatory and extremely offensive as well. You often hear it on the playground, when there is no yard duty teacher within hearing distance. Children can be very cruel when trying to retaliate for real or perceived wrongs. One of the first and most hurtful verbal arrows they fire at each other is this derogatory term.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a retard as, “a mentally disabled person”. Even the youngest students, after the first few months in school don’t need a dictionary to recognize its meaning. They know it means dumb, stupid, not as smart as the others. If the child has a good self image and if he receives lots of praise and positive reinforcement from teacher, parents and other family members, he can likely throw off the insult, knowing deep down that he is doing just as well, if not better than some of the others in his class or his age group.
It is the child who is experiencing difficulty in one or more areas of development, or with school work, who is not good at sports, who has no special talent with which to gain the respect of his peers, who may be really damaged when he hears this name applied to himself. He may take it as validation of what he was beginning to suspect, that he is different, not as good or as smart as his classmates, that he is somehow a substandard being.
What is a tragic conclusion to reach when you’re still in a primary grade! It is often the beginning of behavior problems as well. Since he has been hurt, he may deliberately set out to cause others problems and pain. Ironically, in so doing, he may prove that he is more clever than anyone gave him credit for. In addition, his misdeeds will do nothing to promote his adjustment to the educational system or his acceptance within the school community.
Occasionally older children or teenagers continue to hurl this slur at others in their group. Their language development has stalled at the primary-grade level. As they mature and their vocabulary develops, they usually drop this term for more specific and colorful gibes.
The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is untrue. Name-calling can have more serious and long-lasting effects than mere cuts and bruises. Damage to the vulnerable psyche of a child, who hears himself labeled “retarded” or “a retard” may last into adulthood. Only when he amasses enough positive experiences to outweigh the negative impressions of thoughtless childhood associates, will he gain the self-confidence to become the individual he was always capable of being.