WARNING: the following essay contains graphic and explicit language as used graphically and explicitly by children.
When I was nine, I swore like a sailor. I had never actually met a sailor at that stage of my life, and to this day, I think a better simile might be: to swear like a nine-year-old. I had forgotten about this stage in my own linguistic development until I was reminded by my son just how foul mouthed a young lad can be.
The moment has already become canonized in family lore, sure to be remembered and retold for decades. Indeed, I already can’t wait for the opportunity to tell his own children someday around the Thanksgiving table – should he choose to go down that path.
As it was, the day was beautiful. My wife’s brother, sister, and mom had come up to visit us at our new home. It was peak foliage season, a little later than usual, and warm for an October day. We had decided to take a family walk, exploring some land with which I had recently become familiar.
I love my in-laws. They are real down-to-earth types, not a lot of hang-ups or stress about many things. My wife is the youngest of six, and therefore my three boys are the youngest of the 13 grandkids on that side of the family. There are some similarities in that diverse group of kids, but there are many more differences.
My kids are Vermonters. We come from the wild northern woods, and my boys are definitely more feral than their Connecticut and Virginia relatives. Their hair is longer, their dress less curated, but they are polite, well-mannered boys…well, most of the time.
Aunt Cynthia, Uncle Robert, Granny, my wife, my three boys, and I all set out for a walk in the woods. After politely enduring the usual gamut of questions about school and sports and etcetera, the two older boys, 15 and 13, ran up ahead, trailed by their nine-year-old brother, who, we joke, is a 16-year-old stuck in a nine-year-old’s body. It is not surprising, considering his role models, that his self expression is considerably influenced by these two.
As we walked, we adults discussed the things that adults discuss. Occasionally, we’d consider whether to turn back and head home or keep going, and, enjoying the day, we opted to keep going.
It wasn’t long before the two older boys abandoned us entirely and found their way back home on their own. The younger one, unfortunately for him, was stuck with the grown-ups. He asked time and again to turn around, each time a little more imploring than the last, and each time, he was met with a “not yet.”
After many twists and turns in the path and a good 20 minutes after my exasperated son had determined that this walk was way too long with no end in sight, he asked one last time, “Can we go back NOW?!!!”
“Just a little farther,” I said, enjoying the weather and the conversation with my mother-in-law.
“OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!”
Now, here is where you get into murky territory as a parent. Some parents, no doubt, would be mortified. An entire array of responses might have been appropriate, falling somewhere on the spectrum between spanking/scolding/grounding all the way through to ignoring/doing nothing.
In our case, all five of us burst out laughing.
Then, a really good conversation with my in-laws ensued about the range of possible responses. The outburst itself was treated as insignificant. His mother and I have no illusions about where he might have heard this particular phrase, so rather than indulge in the hypocrisy of pretending to be offended for the sake of our in-laws, we acknowledged his frustration, turned around, and started the walk home through the woods.
Most of us remember the scene in the movie “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie loses the lug nuts to the car and exclaims, “Oh Fudge… Although, I didn’t say fudge.” The movie mom washes his mouth out with soap, and we find humor in his musings on whether he prefers the flavor of Ivory or Life Buoy soap. Even at the time the movie was made, this was a cultural commentary on a time of the past. Today, a parent might be arrested for abuse by forcing a child to ingest a potentially toxic substance.
The consequence for the use of this language will depend upon the context, the cultural norms, and, let’s face it, the potential for parental embarrassment. I am a writer, a former English teacher, and a lifelong lover of language. I am a regular user of – as we refer to it in my house – “the Fuck word.” I love that certain words have the power to shock. And that, to me, is the lesson: Language is powerful.
Words have meaning(s), and the meaning of words can change according to their context. This understanding is subtle and nuanced and also vital for a young person to learn. The problem with being nine is that there aren’t really many contexts in which the word ‘fuck’ is a viable choice. Thus the conundrum of many nine-year-olds: How does one learn to employ this ubiquitous gem of a word without getting into trouble?
A belated side note: I assume that no nine-year-olds will read this article in a magazine directed at parents, so I will avoid using euphemisms, like “The ‘F’ word” or an obscurative version of the word like F#%@ (except in the title because the bots don’t like it). When have you ever read those symbols and not automatically supplied the missing letters? If you say it in your head, why sanitize it?
And that, my friends, is precisely the point. Why sanitize it? Aren’t we learning all the time that overly sanitized things are actually creating problems for us? The parent who picks up the dropped pacifier, pops it in her mouth to clean it off, and gives it back to the baby is doing her child a great service, much more so than the parent who disinfects it or throws it away. The germs she shares are a kind of ‘culture’ that provides an inoculation against infectious agents.
Language is the same way. Ideas can be harmful, and words can infect our thinking. If everything we allow our children to be exposed to is sanitized to the point of being devoid of culture, then we are setting them up to be very confused people when the world eventually comes crashing in.
Better, in my thinking, to be upfront, not only with the words and their meanings, but with contextual information on when and where and with whom certain things are appropriate to say. It is better that children exercise their curiosity, ask questions about, and experiment with words and ideas in the context of their family where they know they won’t get “in trouble.”
Should some things not be said? Of course. Yet things are said all the time that are better left unsaid. If you’re not afraid to sit down with your child and discuss the context, the power of the words, and why something might be better to not say, then that child is bound to cross invisible cultural boundaries without realizing it. He will find himself hurting others or embarrassing himself as he muddles his way through the complexities of what is okay to say, when to say it, and to whom.
The best reason I have been given to choose not to say something is this: Something, once said, can never be unsaid.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the Upanishads, in the final part of the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures composed between 1500 and 1000 BCE (that’s a long time ago): Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your character. Your character becomes your destiny.
What’s the lesson here? You don’t have to believe what you think – now literally a bumper sticker (at least here in Vermont). Be careful what thoughts you attach to. Somewhere between thought and action lies a vast reservoir of power called language. Learning how to use it, and when not to, is a vital life skill. It’s important for parents to embrace the teaching of this skill the same way we teach our kids about cleaning and dressing our bodies, or how to cross a road. I don’t think it’s something to be squeamish about.
Back to our walk in the woods. Once we had turned around and started heading home, my son became more animated, less anxious, even cheerful. The adults discussed the use of choice language openly and without judgment.
He and I have talked about how he shouldn’t use that word at school or outside of the family context, and he has full knowledge of what it means, in its many iterations – although he hasn’t inquired further about what sex is. That conversation still lies in our future.
My son’s most pertinent question, so far: Why is it appropriate for adults to use this language while kids can’t, and how come his brothers, who are not that much older than he is, get to be considered adults in regard to that kind of language? The best answer I have for him is that maybe it isn’t appropriate for adults to use it either. Another answer may be that sometimes it’s okay to be a little inappropriate.
Ultimately, it comes down to being responsible for the consequences of saying things that can’t be unsaid – my consequence being that I have to sit down and try to explain to a nine-year-old the Operator’s Manual for “the Fuck word.”
Man, I need to watch my language.