redefining words

5 Words We Need to Redefine for Our Teens

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Thirty-four years after its release, The Princess Bride is among the most quotable movies ever made. Among its memorable characters is Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini, best known for his repeated use of the word “inconceivable.” He uses the word so often that another character wants to start redefining words: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

This famous line does nothing to stop Vizzini from using “inconceivable” out of context, but at the same time, it offers a caution to those of us raising teenagers. One of our critical tasks while raising teenagers is redefining words that don’t mean what our kids think they mean. Here are 5 words we need to redefine for our teens.


Countless movies, shows, and stories teach teens that strength is supposed to come from within—which is not, in itself, a bad thing. The problem is that teens have come to equate strength with independence as so many heroes lean on willpower alone to face down their foes. J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, offers a contradiction when we see that each hero is required to rely on the help of others. We need to teach our teens to recognize how strength can be found in weakness: knowing how, who, and when to ask for help in the challenges of life.


By the time they become adults, our kids will have been inundated with stories that skip the natural progression of romantic relationships. Consistently, they see two people meet and go quickly from “What’s your name?” to “Let’s have sex.” Is it any surprise, then, that our teenagers don’t understand what intimacy is nor how it’s supposed to progress? We need to teach our teens to recognize that intimacy is defined as close familiarity or friendship. This understanding will allow them, in appropriate stages, to become emotionally vulnerable with another before seeking the later stages of physical intimacy.


In almost everything a child does—going to school, playing a sport, or learning a musical instrument—the end goal seems to be passing specific measurable assessments. Teens often can take this to heart, measuring their own self-worth against these so-called successes and failures. This paradigm can be carried with them into adult life. We need to teach our teens that success isn’t always about passing or about being the best or having the best. We must teach them that success is measured in character, integrity, and a willingness to be faithful and persevere in whatever has been laid before them.


When most people use the word hope, what they are really speaking of is wishful thinking. Teens, too, toss phrases out like “I hope you have a good day,” “I hope my team wins the championship,” and “I hope my life has meaning.” When teenagers see hope in this way, it can become difficult to face the adversity that eventually impacts every human life. We need to teach our teens to redefine hope. Hope isn’t wishful thinking. It’s a confident expectation that not only will the most difficult experiences get better, but we will never face them alone.


Mercy is often understood as compassion at the cost of justice. For teenagers, whose idealism and enthusiasm can create a sense of self-righteousness, mercy can seem like a cheat. Teens want to see the people who do wrong get what they deserve. But we need to teach our teens to redefine mercy instead as a necessary virtue that will help them navigate day-to-day life. Mercy in this light is our ability to sympathize with the plight of others and, in turn, to do whatever we can to ease their sufferings.

Sound off: While we’re redefining words for teens, what other words would you add to this list?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What’s your favorite word and why?”