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 “sh-ts” and “f*cks” 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.”
Precisely the response I was hoping for. Benign words, really, when you think about it, and, thankfully, not swear words.
“Look kids, the ferry is coming.”
Leah ignores the ferry and returns to the condom phrase, puzzled. She repeats “herpes” several times. She misses (whew) “Sex me, fuck me, hump me” and “The world eats shit real bad”—phrases with the words I yearn to avoid. And the profile drawing of a scrotum with individual hairs spiking out like cats’ whiskers, with bulbous penis above. She probably won’t recognize the drawing for a few years—I can only hope—but next time, no doubt, she’ll see the previously unseen words and I’ll have to explain them. And begin the battle of monitoring language.
As it turns out, the dreaded words—one of them at least—arrives unexpectedly in our dining room from a different source. It’s a kids’ story CD from the library that inadvertently adds to Leah’s vocabulary and catches me off guard. The protagonist, a ten-year-old girl, is visiting her professor father’s poetry class on the day when a student declares a poem by Wordsworth a “crock of shit.” Then apologizes because of the girl’s presence. “I’m sure my daughter has heard the word shit before,” says the professor, “although I expect she’s as surprised as I am to hear it in a classroom.”
I can’t help thinking the story’s reader enunciates each word a little too clearly, pausing before and after the word shit. Leah is drawing while she listens to the story, and her colored pencil pauses in mid-air.
“Is shit a bad word, Mom?”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, it is.”
“Hmm. It sounds like a bad word.” And she returns to drawing without further comment.
Huh. That was easy.
I ponder whether this moment will be one Leah will always remember—the moment she learned shit from a story CD—the way I recall my own childhood moments of language awareness. The day I called my sister a bastard, so angry with her I wanted to call her something scandalous, though I didn’t know what the word meant (my mother was furious, of course). The first time I heard my dad say fuck in the company of men friends and being surprised he knew the word, so practiced was he at saying fiddlesticks that to hear profanity out of his mouth was something of a shock. Also a reminder he was an adult and someone about whom I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
At Ultimate Frisbee, a sport to which my husband and I have been dragging our kids for years, Leah recognizes the word shit finally, thanks to the story CD, and, exactly as I’d anticipated, passes her new knowledge on to her younger brother.
At dinner, Ty wants to talk about it. “Why do people at Ultimate say shit so much, Mommy?”
“Well, sometimes people say it during sports if they miss a kick or a catch or something. But it’s best to leave it on the field, and they do.” Ha.
“So, they don’t say shit at home?”
“Would they say shit if they were playing sports at home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what if I said shit at home?”
Leah is listening with bright eyes, alert for my reply. “If you need to say shit, you can say it in your room,” I say.
“It’s like potty talk, Ty,” Curt says, “People use that word for specific situations and places. But mostly, people don’t say it at all.”
“Well, what if I called our fish a shit? What if it is a shit? It might be, you know.” Plainly, Ty suspects saying shit—and he’s right—in the context of this conversation will not earn him any discipline, and he’s taking advantage of it. Curt and I have to hide our smiles.
A week later, while I’m walking Leah home from school with two friends coming to play, the topic of a bad word on the school slide comes up.
“They roped off the slide, Mom, and only the playground duties know what the word is,” Leah says. “It was a really bad word. Maybe s-h-t—is that how you spell it?”
“Or f-u-k,” Marie says. This from one of the most innocent girls I know. I can barely contain my surprise.
Ty perks up. “What does that mean, Mommy?”
“It’s a bad word,” Leah says. To my knowledge, Leah hasn’t progressed to this word, my personal albatross, and I’m surprised Marie knows it, can spell it, if only approximately.
“What is it?” Ty says.
“We’re not going to talk about it right now,” I say. I’m not up for explaining the F word to Ty with innocent—or not so innocent—neighbor kids around. But, you know what? We’re here. On the doorstep I’ve been dreading. I didn’t realize how here until one evening when I was stewing on words starting with F, combing the dictionary for a word to write on my Ultimate Frisbee team T-shirt. (Our team’s name was “F.”) I came up with “forty,” my age, which seemed more appropriate, if perhaps banal, than “frenzy” or “fantastic” or “fun.”
“Forty?” Leah says. She sounds scornful. “Mom, your word should be fuckin’.”
Fuckin’? Yes, siree, we’re not only on the doorstep, we’re through the door.
“When did you learn that word?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know.” She wanders away. “But forty is boring.”
I have to admit, though, something about that conversation has lessened my clutch response to swearing. Not unlike learning to relax when you hear the baby cry yet again in the middle of the night and you’re too tired to respond and she goes back to sleep on her own (or she doesn’t, but you don’t panic).
Okay then. Bring on those conversations. I think I can handle them now. I confess, I blew it on my evening reading with Leah and the explanation for “eunuch” in an American Girl book (normally squeaky clean), but it was a lesson to me. Initially, I relied on the glossary to explain the term, which had sanitized the word completely: “English word for male servant within the harem.” And harem: “the women’s quarters of a palace.” A betrayal to its young audience, I thought, but I decided to go with it, unsure whether to explain castration. It lasted one evening. The next night, Leah said, “Why does the story keep saying a eunuch is not a man or a woman? What does that mean?” So I told her what a eunuch really is and why a man would become a eunuch, and we talked about related words used for animals—gelding and steer—and what neuter means.
“Oh,” she said.
I’m beginning to see the F word is pretty simple, really. To my kids, it’s just a swear word (I haven’t had to explain its meaning, though that will come), and they have shown me they can handle their new vocabulary. They’re not shouting shit in the supermarket or at the playground as I feared.
Kissing Leah goodnight, I mull over the potential for mother/daughter conversations and whether she’ll continue to come to me for meaning, or whether she’ll do as I did and figure out words on her own. I still recall the day I asked my mother what rape meant and her vague, unsatisfactory answer, and my understanding then that I would need to research tricky words on my own. I know now, of course, why her answer was vague, and I know I would fumble with my own explanation. I know, too, that the understanding I gained that day long ago was just one of many tiny steps to independence.
My concern about swearing, I realize, is not really about swearing. It’s about the loss of innocence that comes with learning new words. Each one gained is a sign of something lost, an incremental step away from childhood. Away from me. Yet, that’s what parenting is: allowing our children to grow and in the process, letting them go. One word at a time.