Valentine’s Day is here again. And I have a confession. After 12 years as a mom who insisted on homemade valentines, lovingly crafted at the dining room table with pink, red and white construction paper, glitter and stickers, I’ve finally given in. Hallmark has won, and this year my youngest daughter will distribute mass-produced, pre-packaged Snoopy valentines to the 26 kids in her third-grade class.
Every year on Valentine’s Day, my father would bring home two giant heart-shaped cakes with pink icing, one for me, and one for my sister. It made us happy, but the gesture wasn’t necessary; we already knew we were loved.
On this Valentine’s Day, in the name of love, I have a simple proposal: that journalists make a conscientious choice to end our use of the term “illegitimate child;” and that we take leadership by challenging others who say it in our newsrooms, online comments, or on air.
For years, I’ve been troubled by this pejorative phrase, typically mentioned in a story about a politician or a celebrity who got caught having an extramarital affair that resulted in a baby. Recent examples: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the late Senator Strom Thurmond, presidential candidate John Edwards; activist Jesse Jackson.
On a recent Saturday, I heard the dreaded expression tumble of out the mouth of Guy Raz, host of NPR’s All Things Considered. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics came to mind: “Careful what you say, children will listen.” I waited for the question, “Mama, what’s an illegitimate child?” Who wants to explain this one to the curious child who asks from the back seat of the car?
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “illegitimate” as “not recognized as lawful offspring; specifically: born of parents not married to each other…not sanctioned by law.”
What’s wrong with illegitimate children? Nothing. Nothing is wrong with the children, but something is very wrong with the society that continues to brand children as “less than” because of the circumstances of their birth. The phrase “illegitimate child” persists as negative baggage that kids are forced to carry against their will.
Break it down a little further and consider what it is, exactly, that makes a child “legitimate?” Male presence: A father willing to claim responsibility, paternity, ownership. So much for gender equality.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 41 percent of children in the U.S. are born to unmarried mothers. Indeed, The Future of Children, a Princeton-University-Brookings Institution journal, uses the term “Fragile Families.” Why fragile? Because marriage is an economic relationship that provides some security for women and children; and kids in single-parent homes are much more likely to live in poverty.
By discouraging the phrase “illegitimate children,” I’m not celebrating single parenthood; people who raise kids on their own have inner resources beyond my imagination. Those of us in two-parent households often joke that two adults are rarely enough. Wealthy families have live-in nannies, au pairs or other domestic help; poorer families often rely on extended family co-habitation to improve the ratio of adults to children.
But back to the term “illegitimate child” and what journalists can do. We can start the conversation. I emailed Guy Raz to ask if he’d given any thought to what impact this archaic expression might have on kids. He hadn’t; he thanked me for flagging it.
Responding to listener comments, NPR’s Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos had also been grappling with the terms “illegitimate” and “love child.” His recent columns reported that the stylebooks of both the New York Times and Washington Post include entries telling reporters not to use the word “illegitimate” to describe a child. The NPR Ombudsman said he was leaning toward recommending that NPR adopt a similar policy. But the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard used in newsrooms across the country, has no entry between “illegal immigrant” and “Illinois.”
Until now, that is. I raised the concern with AP Stylebook Editor David Minthorn, who replied, “It’s a good point. We’re planning an entry in the 2012 edition of the AP Stylebook to discourage use of the term for a child of unmarried parents. Thanks for the suggestion.”
“We try to be sensitive to family issues,” explained Minthorn, when I followed up by phone. “We recently revamped our entry on adoption. We stress that ‘adopted’ is only to be used if it’s relevant to the story and the recommended phrasing is that a child is placed for adoption rather than ‘given up’ for adoption.”
The AP Stylebook isn’t the final word on this issue. That authority belongs to each and every one of us who puts words together for a living. We know that words can hurt. Children are listening.
So, what do you think? Do journalists have a professional responsibility to choose their words carefully? Is this a question of ethics or etiquette? Join the conversation on the JCCF Facebook page.
Video Discussion: There's No Such Thing As An Illegitimate Child
JCCF Video by Erica Mink
Julie Drizin is JCCF's center director