And From the Olympics: The Language of Parentage

I confess I’ve been  following the Olympics pretty closely.   Imagine finding something in that coverage that fits so well here?   But here it is.

Apparently Simone Biles (do I need to explain that she is the finest gymnast on the US team, thought by some to be among the best ever?) was adopted by her maternal grandfather (Ron Biles)  and his wife (Nellie Biles) when she was young.   Her genetic mother (Ron Biles’ daughter) struggled with drug and alcohol issues.

There’s nothing secret about this, as far as I can tell.   in the article I linked to, Simone Biles is quoted as saying:

When I was younger, I was adopted by my grandparents, which are now my parents” ….. “I call them Mom and Dad. Everything’s just been so normal.”

But I guess not everyone is as clear about this as she is.   An NBC commentator said “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.”  

Now I have to say, I’m not even sure what this means.  I think he might have meant that she may call them “mom” and “dad” but that this doesn’t make them parents.

But doesn’t it depend what kind of “parents” we are talking about?   If there was an adoption (and it certainly appears that there was) then they are her legal parents.   At the same time, they are not (and I doubt they would claim to be) her genetic parents.

But my guess it that neither of these are what Simone Biles was thinking about.   As far as I can tell she–and those who criticized the commentator–were thinking about psychological/social parents.   Ron and Nellie are the people who raised her, who guided her, who were there for her.   They are, in the most important way of all, her parents.

And apparently even the commentator figured this one out.  His last quoted comment is “Ron and Nellie are Simone’s parents.”

I think for many people the default, unmodified “parent” in common speech is indeed the social/psychological parent.   It’s mostly in specialized contexts (doctor’s appointments, legal matters) that the other forms of parentage come to the fore.

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9 responses to “And From the Olympics: The Language of Parentage

  1. What people seem to miss it’s not a story about adoption, even though that was the legal means to transfer custody. It’s about family. Lots of people are raised by relatives, when their parents can not parent.

    I guess that is what irks me.

    There are articles really ripping apart bio parents, stating that Simone was unwanted/abandoned. We know that mom had a drug issue and unclear what was up with the father. We all agree they were not in a situation to parent (verb) their children, but no need to piss on these people because adoption is so great and awesome.

    I could be critical of the grandfather to argue an unpopular side, why did it take “years” in foster care before they were placed with the grandfather. Where was the grandfather raising his own daughter, who ended up with a substance abuse problem? I’m not trying to be a jerk, but social workers ask these questions before placing a child in a home. Where was extended kin before the state had to intervene?

  2. People only say that they “think of” someone as something (a father, a brother, a lawyer) when they know that the truth is the person is not actually what the “think of” them as and are really something else (a grandfather, a best friend, a paralegal) functioning physically, emotionally, professionally as one might expect the real deal to behave.

    • I think this is true and it’s a useful observation about how we use language. If I say “I think of her as a sister” you can assume that she is not, in fact, my sister. (It’s a variety of the negative pregnant, I believe.)

      At the same time, it doesn’t tell you what “sister” (unmodified) means to me. It might be that “sister” (unmodified) means genetic sister, or it might mean that “sister” (unmodified) means social/psychological sister, or it might be that “sister” (unmodified) means something else again.

      • It’s all in the context to the discussion and with who we are having a discussion – since not everyone shares the same opinions and since passions run VERY high about these issues, modifiers are usually necessary for clarity.

        • There’s no doubt in my mind that modifiers bring clarity. If we all used them all the time, it would be (relatively?) easy. But we don’t. The modifiers often get dropped. Sometimes that’s fine–context makes it all clear. But sometimes it becomes a point of contention. I think we’ll always find the unmodified form being used and so people want to claim it to carry their chosen meaning. Further, as a descriptive matter, it probably will carry some broadly understood meaning, so the struggle over what that meaning is has real importance.

      • Sure your right that as you say the unmodified word ‘sister’ does not tell me what ‘sister’ unmodified means to you. But it does not matter what the word means to you because if you are trying to communicate it matters what the word means to the other person or you won’t get your point across clearly. This is why people have to agree upon common meanings and spellings of words in order for the word to qualify as part of a particular language. If a student were to consistently describe his parents female offspring in an essay as his ‘citster’ we would expect the teacher to mark the word as being misspelled. He could protest the red-mark by saying that to him, ‘citster’ is the correct spelling for a word that means his parents female offspring, but he would be out of line and incorrect according to the rules of the English language. We may affectionately refer to our best friends as our brothers or sisters and mean it in our hearts but to introduce them that way to others would be dishonest without saying “I think of them as” either a brother or sister. Truthful communication requires the application of commonly understood meanings to the words we use so that the listener will understand what we are saying. If a man is questioned by his wife about cheating and he refers to the affair partner as being just his friend and his indiscretions are later proven it would be reasonable to say he was lying despite his protests that he was telling the truth and thinks of the woman he was sleeping with as ‘just a friend’. He can use the word friend to describe a non-platonic relationship if he wants but he should not expect others to think he’s telling the truth because he does not get to decide on the fly what words mean especially knowing that the listener will understand the word by its more common meaning. If you say someone is your sister when you were just raised with them like sisters its just not telling the whole truth because you prefer to paint a picture that leaves thee details of the relationship vague allowing you to have people believe that you and they are both offspring of the same people. It’s lying no matter how harmless it is its still just a lie.

        • I think you are right that for effective communication there needs to be shared meaning between speaker and listener. But how do we get there? Does the speaker have to accommodate the listener (assuming the speaker knows what the listener’s understanding is) or does the listener have to give the speaker the meaning the speaker wants (assuming the listener knows what that is)? Now that I’ve written out this question I don’t even know if it is relevant–how often do speaker and listener know enough about what each other mean? And what if I am speaking to 100 people who have different meanings?

          At some level we need to arrive at a shared (within a culture) meaning for words. And we can do that where there aren’t underlying disputes distilled into the language. This is an area where we haven’t made it. (Yet?)

          • I am a contract manager and so I am aware that words are meant by their commonly understood meanings unless specifically stated otherwise and this general meme of contract law seems to serve parties to contracts pretty well. If the contract makes mention of a tennis shoe with no special clarification about the meaning of the term tennis shoe parties can expect that the term has the commonly understood meaning which is a meaning that both parties will understand equally well due to the meaning being the same for both people either through the primary definition in a respected dictionary of whatever their language is or by some other understanding that both people speaking the language would have. The meaning of parent that everyone has in common is that primary definition being source of another person or thing because all people have those kinds of parents who are our source. All people have that kind of parent in common but they don’t all have people referred to as “legal parents”. Take foster kids for instance whose parents lost custody and are not their legal parents anymore and they are wards of the state. Those people won’t have the ‘caregiver with parental authority” kind of parent and they are wards of the state and maybe they have visitation with their parents while they are working out their problems…would it be true to say they did not have parents just because their parents lost custody and were not raising them?

            • So I think this is just one of these places that we disagree. You say “The meaning of parent that everyone has in common is that primary definition being the source of another person…..” (It’s a bit of a run-on sentence, but I think I’ve fairly captured the gist.) I just do not think this is true. I say this thinking of how “parent” is used in common speech around me.

              I do realize that you believe it is true. So we disagree, have disagreed for a long time, and will likely disagree in the future.

              That said, this disagreement does not need to bring us to a halt. I believe I can say that people disagree about the meaning of parent in common speech–and you and I evidence that disagreement. I think I can also say that the meaning of parent in common speech is contested–and again, you and I are evidence of that.

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