I’m not a prude about bad language. Not since third grade, anyway. But still I worry that if my kids learn about swearing, they’ll do it indiscriminately—pepper their conversations with "shits" and "fucks" and yell inappropriate phrases in the supermarket or at the park where littler kids (and their mothers) will hear.
So I guess I’ve been lucky, because for the longest time my kids had no idea such words existed.
When kids learn to read, though, it’s all over, or it’s just begun, depending on how you look at it. It’s just a matter of time before your older children are bringing home new words, like bad winter colds, to infect younger kids not yet in school. Indeed, school is often a forum for such learning, but my kids have their own special source for these words I can do nothing about. It’s a foot-passenger shelter perched on a ferry dock, and we wait in it regularly to visit my parents and the island they live on. This shelter’s graffiti offers astonishing possibilities for vocabulary expansion: words and phrases I dread explaining and know I must, have known since my older child’s birth, because we like to visit my parents and because my kids are curious and these words are so mysterious and interesting and what do they say, Mom? Thus far, I’ve been able to put them off.
But one June morning my daughter, just out of first grade and an avid reader, joins her four-year-old brother for an island visit and the writing is on the wall, so to speak.
I confess, the chance to be an open-minded mother with truthful answers came well before the June dock visit—I can’t say I have the excuse of being unprepared. At the start of first grade, Leah arrived home one afternoon, not yet a reader, with a story and a question. “Mom, me and Eva were in the girl’s bathroom today and there was a word in the stall that started with F. Eva wouldn’t say what it was, but she said it was bad. Do you know any bad words starting with F?”
Several thoughts went through my head, namely “good for you, Eva,” and “what the hell is the F-word doing in an elementary school bathroom?” and “should I tell her?” The perfect opportunity for truth. But I lied.
“Gee, sweetie, I can’t think of any bad words starting with F.” I paused, as if in thought. “Nope, can’t think any.”
Leah studied me at length, waiting, perhaps, for a facial clue to indicate the lie. I turned aside so she couldn’t see my twitching lips.
“Are you sure, Mom?”
When my husband got home, she met him at the door to repeat the story and to ask whether he knew any bad words starting with F, trailing him into the kitchen. Imperceptibly, I shook my head at him, pressing my lips together to keep my laughter from bubbling out.
“I don’t know any,” I said. “You don’t either, do you, Curt?”
“Nope, I don’t,” he replied. But he arched his eyebrows and hissed, “Why don’t you just tell her?”
I shook my head again. Two weeks, I told him later, even a week, anything to buy time. Please humor me. I’m not ready.
At the dock, the kids study the water for sea life. The ferry is late, and I point out the gulls sitting on the boat launch beside the dock, hoping the kids won’t be drawn to the shelter. But eventually they are, and Leah starts reading.
“Look, Mom, ‘Kill.’ Why would someone want to write that?” She reads out other single words, none of which, by itself, constitutes anything interesting. She studies a phrase, sounding it out slowly. “Always put a…condom…on. She gots…herpes…in her mouth.” Her reading is flawless.
“What’s a condom, Mom? And what’s herpes?”
My brain snaps to attention. I could lie again, say I don’t know, but I feel guilty considering it. The time has come. Time to deal.
“A condom is a form of birth control,” I say, “and herpes is a disease.”
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