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In English, when I say don't fool around with that, am I saying You are stupid!

I mean, my son came back from school today with a note from the teacher:

Dear Dad,

I was fooling around with a paper today and I go my clip moved. I was suppose to be paying attention to the teacher's lesson. 3 times she told me to stop fooling around and to put my hands on the table but I didn't. I'm sorry that I was fooling around in class.

-Jon.

How do I explain this phrase to my son:

Basically your teacher said you are stupid. That it is stupid to get distracted and play with a paper. While your teacher gives a lesson in front of class. That is what a stupid person would do. Don't do that again or she is going to think you really are stupid.

English is my second language so, before I tell my kid, Yea that was stupid to do! How do you explain that phrase?

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    What exactly are you asking here? What phrase do you need explained? Why is your son bringing you notes from his teacher, but from himself? I don’t understand this at all. Fooling around and being stupid are not at all the same thing, though. The verb does come from the noun ‘fool’, meaning a stupid or silly person, but ‘to fool around’ just means doing silly, unserious things that are not productive. Your son(’s teacher) was not calling anyone stupid. Apr 29, 2014 at 16:29
  • Some people need to fidget, and do so even when they are listening to the teacher. Some teachers don't understand this. If your son wasn't paying attention, you should tell him to pay attention to the teacher. If your son really was paying attention, you should tell him to try to fidget less noticeably. Apr 29, 2014 at 19:51

2 Answers 2

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In this context, I would interpret "fooling around" as the same as "playing with" or "trivially using" or "fiddling with" or other.

I do not interpret it to mean anything about being stupid at all. It just means "using," but there is a strong meaning that it is not being used in an important or deliberate way.

In this case, it sounds like the teacher is trying to say to pay attention to her, and not be distracted by paying attention to the other thing.

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No, the teacher is not saying that your son is stupid.

"Fooling around" in English means not applying yourself or doing something in an unserious way. So, for example, if I download a new software tool, I might have this conversation with my co-worker:

What have you got there?

It's called GrammarMaster. It's a new grammar-checking program.

Cool. What are you doing with it?

Nothing much. Just fooling around. I might use it on a project later, though.

The implication is that I'm exploring the program, seeing how it works, but not using it for any set purpose. I'm not calling myself an idiot.

Similarly, when the teacher says that your son was "fooling around" with a piece of paper, she means he was playing with it, fiddling with it, or generally paying attention to it in an unfocused or unserious manner, instead of paying attention to the lesson she was teaching. She is not calling him stupid; although the word "fool" appears in the expression, there is no implication at all in modern usage that the person who is "fooling around" is stupid.

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  • Your example is great. Fooling around does not necessarily mean stupid or pointless; how many experts got their start 'fooling around' with computers, bugs, cooking, etc. The teacher was probably trying to illustrate that there is an appropriate time and place for it; fooling around and making paper airplanes in your spare time may lead to becoming an aero-space engineer. Doing it in class may lead to becoming a fry-cook at McDs.
    – JSM
    Aug 20, 2014 at 23:27

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