Once upon a time I was a nanny to two small boys, ages 4 and 2. Being new to the profession I was terrified about every move I made. I was so concerned that even the tiniest thing would scar them for life somehow. It’s amazing when you’re all of the sudden around two small children 10 hours a day and you realize how little of a filter you really have.

After a week and a half of observation, I put rules into place. One of them was very simple, yet evoked a beautiful, complicated realization that is now a philosophy I live by today. The rule was: be kind. We always tell our children to be nice, without any explanation why. We tell them to be good, and never really stipulate how “good” is different from “bad.”

I would find myself in all out moral, philosophical and even spiritual dilemmas on a daily basis. The family was incredibly religious, and the first time I used the word bad in accordance to a behavior the 4-year-old was displaying, the youngest chimed in with how God doesn’t like people who are bad. The small action made by the eldest certainly didn’t warrant any Gods getting involved, yet his little brother sat in his car seat proud and feeling completely validated in his understanding of what it is to be “bad.” Suddenly, the word had a lot more meaning, especially to the poor 4-year-old, and I realized some things needed to be redefined and other things needed a whole new word. I was also very aware of the fact that I had not been using my own words very wisely.

Good, bad, nice, kind, and mean; five loaded words that aren’t always what they appear to be; five categories that we don’t want our kids placing themselves or others into with little or no thought; five words we use far too often in the wrong context.

The boys sat in their plushy chairs with their names sewn on