It happens: the day when a kid goes from not knowing the word, to knowing it. You can't unknow it, you can only decide what to do with the word.
When I was in the 2nd grade, my teacher told my class that we were absolutely not to go into the last stall in the girls' bathroom by the upper field, because there was a very bad word scratched into the paint on the toilet paper dispenser. I'm sure you can picture how long the line was for that particular stall at the next recess. The rest of the stalls stood empty while a long line of 2nd grade girls waited their turn to find out what the very bad word was. When it was my turn, I looked at the little white metal box to see FUCK in a scratched scrawl. I was perplexed. That wasn't even a word! Why would this little non-word be such a big deal to all of the teachers?
At home that afternoon, I asked my mother while she peeled vegetables at the kitchen sink, "what does FUCK mean?" Her back was to me and I remember her shoulders going still, the sound of the peeler stopping abruptly. A moment of silence. Then:
"Where did you hear that word?"
"It was on the toilet paper dispenser in the girls' bathroom."
"It's a not-very-nice word for sex," she said. And that was that. (I learned about the birds and the bees earlier than most kids, and think that was a good thing...but that's a story for a whole different post which I cannot believe I haven't written already.)
Shortly thereafter, the word was painted over. The scratched letters reappeared. And there my memory fades out. I'm pretty sure I never uttered the word again until high school or possibly (probably) college. My cussing is currently somewhere between sailor and preschooler, and yes, I do use that very bad word.
At some point between 2nd grade and now, somebody somewhere introduced me to the idea that there are no bad words. I'm going to say that again, because it's kindof revolutionary.
There are no bad words.
The linguist in me loves this. Words cannot be bad or good, they are simply words. But words can be powerful - or can they? Is a word, in and of itself, powerful? Not really. So it's the way they're used and the context in which they're perceived that gives them that power and makes them "bad" or "good."
I also feel pretty strongly that these words are associated with shades of meaning that sometimes makes them exactly the right word to use. "Darnit!" and "oh, shit!!!" are similar, but what they convey is not entirely the same. This challenges the notion that people who swear have poor vocabularies or are just lazy. Picking the word that best fits the situation is anything but lazy, and you probably don't have to go far to find somebody who uses "fuck" on a regular basis but also drops 75-cent words on the daily.
There's also mounting evidence that cursing relieves stress and pain, can help people to bond/make friends, helps us to express ourselves, gives us a nonphysical outlet for aggression, assists in giving a sense of control over one's life, and can keep us calmer in general.
The first real challenge to my more-permissive way of viewing the use of expletives came when Griffin, who is now 11, was in kindergarten and discovered the word/phrase "dammit." There were several things that I noticed:
- He did not seem to have an awareness that this word was special in any way.
- He used it similarly to the way adults do (that is, to express frustration when something wasn't working).
- His use of the word didn't bother me in general, but I did cringe at somebody so young using it.
- My main source of negative feeling about his saying "dammit" was that I didn't want his younger brothers to say it.
I explored the third and fourth feelings - why did I feel differently about a young child using an expletive, versus an adult using the same word in the same way? And why did I feel even more concerned that the younger boys, then 2 1/2 and 1, might pick it up?
Here's what I realized:
- I was concerned that he might use the word near adults who would have strongly negative reactions and might punish him or otherwise treat him poorly / think poorly of him.
- I was concerned about his ability to use the word only in appropriate contexts.
- I knew that his brothers would have absolutely no ability to judge their own use of the word.
- I was conditioned to dislike hearing children swear.
#4 was just something I would have to get over. Every generation has words that feel like a big nothing to them, but that are considered not-so-polite by their parents' generation and scandalously profane by their grandparents' generation. A great example of this is the word suck: to my mother, who is insistent that her children absolutely not use this word, it refers to fellatio and only to fellatio. My generation is aware of that meaning, but the word generally does not recall that meaning to mind unless used in a sexual context. To us, it either refers to applying suction with the mouth in any setting (sucking on a cough drop, sucking a thumb) or to something being disappointing, a bummer, undesirable, something we really wish weren't happening. It's shorthand for a whole bunch of feelings. It's linguistically efficient. My children's generation doesn't even seem aware of the word being related to sex and use it from young ages to refer to bummer situations. I'm reminded of stories about my grandparents' generation objecting to the use of slang like "neat" and "cool". Word meanings change across time, and that means our social conditioning will, at some point, not fit with the common vernacular. So get over it, Jess.
I addressed #1-3 thusly: "You really like that new word. It's very useful to you. I need to give you some information about it. Some grownups don't like it when children use that word. It has strong power to them. If you use it at school, your teacher will dislike it and you will get in trouble. If you use it near Grammy and Grandfather, they will feel very uncomfortable. So it's up to you to decide how to use that word wisely."
The kid, to this day, is very wise about how he uses words. I know that when he was in 3rd grade, he and his classmates got together to compile a list of all of the curse words they knew. I was pretty impressed by their sharing and documentation of information. More recently, he has ocasionally used "fuck" or "shit", but only in moments of extreme anger or frustration. And honestly, that goes back to stress relief and nonviolent outlets of strong feeling. Another interesting aspect of his use of this language is that he incorporates it into dialogue between characters in a serial dystopian story that he has been writing - and it reads like very real dialogue.
But that doesn't mean I'm always comfortable with it, because of that good ol' social conditioning. And also because every kid is different. Reese, now 8 and in the 2nd grade (what is it about 2nd grade!?), has a friend with whom he performs "cuss radio." Cuss radio involves the other boy rapping expletives while Reese beatboxes, a passtime which has greatly increased Reese's vocabulary. He is not nearly as circumspect about his use of these words, which means his six-year-old brother once rapped "fuck fuck fuck ass ass" along with him in the car while the whole family was on an idyllic outing. Which was kindof hilarious, actually, except for the whole thing where my BABY just said "fuck" and "ass" and I wanted to give them a little guidance about how to make choices about using those words, because PARENTING.
Which leads us to the photo at the top. That, my friends, is the Easter egg that I scooped out of a cup of dye where it had been abandoned by a child who got distracted and went to do something else. Its bold blue provides bright contrast to the word scrawled on it in clear wax. FUCK. Oh, I knew who the egg-writer was. Mr. Cuss Radio derives a profound sense of amusement from these little moments. He also says the word with a strength and roundness that tells me that he will have a different relationship with swearing than Griffin does.
But. There are no bad words.
So I scooped it out, laughed with a friend who was hanging out with me, marveled at the way that two children explore the linguistic power of a word in different ways. I don't really want Xander, who is just learning to read and has reached exactly the level of word deciphering ability to read this one, to see it. So will I hide it? Will it really change anything for Xander?
Does it make sense to censor?
It doesn't. I'm a guide, not a censor. So the egg stays. And we explore this bit of language development together, uncensored, questioning our conditioning while also holding an empathetic awareness of how other people feel when they hear these words.
It happens, that day when a kid goes from not knowing the word, to knowing it and using it. You can't unknow it, you can't put it back in the box. You can only decide what to do with the word, now that it's here.