Today when we left the beach, Henry was hungry and tired and cranky. As he dragged his little feet through the sand, he said, “Mom? You are a pain in the ass!” I explained to him that “pain in the ass” is a “grown-up” phrase, meaning only big people can use it. I demonstrated other phrases he could use instead, such as “Pain in the Neck” or “Oh Boy!” but if he really wanted to say something cranky to his Mom, he could say “I love you, Most Beautiful Queen of the Universe.” This made him laugh through his disgruntled pout, and if he hadn’t dropped his tiny broken brown seashell in the sand, we may have even avoided the late day meltdown of tears, resulting in plopping ourselves down in the powdery sand, right in the middle of the pathway, and foraging through the snack bag for something to make him feel better.
When we got home later, our 6-year-old neighbor and his Dad popped by for a surprise visit. Dad decided to make himself at home and polish off a bottle of Jack Daniels, while the little boy and Annabelle and Henry got out the thick nubbly art paper and glitter glue. I ran around the house trying to make it look less like the aftereffects of a tornado, and Annabelle came into the kitchen. “Mom? I forgot to say Oh Boy!” she said, holding out one finger covered in glitter glue. “What did you say instead,” I asked. “Oh fuck” she replied. Alrighty then!!
My tiny sweet graceful girl has taken to swearing like a sailor! Even better, in front of the neighbor child, who will go home with all sorts of new phrases. “I won’t say it again,” she said, and went to find a towel to wipe the glitter off her finger.
I guess I knew it was coming. Whenever she was frustrated today she said “fu” like she hears me say, but usually I drag out the “u” sound and tack a “j” sound onto the end, making “fudge.” I guess I’m fooling no one. I told her that children don’t say “fu” and she said ok. Henry immediately picks up anything I say not to say, so he grinned at me and started saying “fu-fu-fu-fu” over and over again. He’s a master of causing trouble, and even better at barely eluding it. He knows he’s not allowed to say “stupid” so he calls people “supid,” his own brilliant way of avoiding a naughty word. He also called our little neighbor “supid”, and when the poor child told me Henry was saying the naughtiest word of all–“stupid”–Henry could deny it with a clear conscience.
Should I be scared or impressed by his ingenuity?
I don’t like to put a stigma on any words because I don’t want words to carry that extra power that naughtiness gives. Kids are too attracted to forbidden pleasures, so I hope that if I don’t react but just make clear those are grown-up words, they won’t repeat them.
When I was 20, I drove my rattly VW bus to teach preschool in Salt Lake City. I had 35 3-year-olds in my class. One boy, I’ll call him Dave, had a blonde mullet and that little cocky posture particular to dirt bikers in Utah. Dave was a master of troublemaking, and one day, he took off his shirt and was running in circles around the classroom. My co-teacher, Penny, told him to put it back on and he shouted “Fuck you!” loud enough for the entire classroom, adults and children alike, to come to a standstill with one collective gasp. This great moment of drama was enough to ignite a frenzy of cursing and it took some time and some ignoring to take the power of the word away before everyone settled down.
It was with this in mind that I reacted to Annabelle announcing at dinner last night that cleaning the windows of the playhouse was a “pain in the ass.” (I’m sure this is where Henry heard the phrase to repeat to me today.) George and I looked at each other across the table and George, who has a very hard time keeping a straight face around the kids, burst out laughing. This is never a good tactic when you’re trying to disempower something a child says. I pointed out to Annabelle that “pain in the ass” is not a kid’s phrase and she said “OK Mommy” with a smug delighted smile on her face.
And so, as I navigate the waters of parenthood, rowing the river of right and wrong but never wanting to squelch creativity, I find that rather than make a blanket statement that certain words are bad or naughty, I’ll just calmly inform the kids that there are certain things that belong to the realm of grown-ups, and when they grow up, they will be part of their world. And so tonight, when Annabelle fell off her bike and said “Damn it!” I just stayed neutral and she quickly looked at me and corrected herself. “I mean, Oh Boy!” Progress.