Yesterday I stupidly bravely addressed the issue of profanity with Gracie, my nine-year-old, when a friend sent her an otherwise innocuous e-mail with the F-word in it.
I live in a glass house where profanity is concerned. Once, a few years back, I heard Gracie trying out the word “dammit,” evidently without any idea of what it meant:
Gracie [with a smile reserved usually for Nutella]: Dammit!
Gracie [with the scholarly air of a mycologist correctly identifying a mushroom species]: Dammit.
After I freaked out calmly explained that she shouldn’t use that word, I asked her where she heard it. After much coaxing, she hung her head and pointed at me. At which point, I really did try not to laugh out loud.
Despite the odd slip here and there, I do my best to maintain a G-rated household. So after I saw the F-bomb e-mail I started rehearsing a phone call to the mother of the girl who sent it. I didn’t want to create a big drama; I just wanted to stem the flow of swear words into my kid’s inbox.
As I struggled to find the right tone, I suddenly had a flash of sanity: This isn’t the first or the last time Gracie will encounter profanity.
Despite my very sheltered Catholic upbringing, I learned every swear word in the book when I was eight. A fellow summer camper named Emily had an older brother with a passion for vulgarity. So if I was fluent in locker room talk at eight, Gracie must already know at least a few bad words.
It struck me that trying to block all sources of potty language is like playing Whac-A-Mole. A lot of questionable stuff pops up in all sorts of places. I can’t possibly censor all of it and I’m not sure I really want to. It’s a fine line—shelter her from what is truly harmful and beyond her capacity to handle yet expose her to enough of the world that she learns how to discern the good from the bad for herself.
So instead I talked to Gracie. I reiterated our house rules and reminded her that the English language provides us with many better choices than profanity. She wasn’t visibly impressed. The “dammit” incident may have hurt my credibility here. I continued.
I told her: There are negative consequences to using these words, beyond getting in trouble with me. Most mothers, hearing you use a curse word, would not allow you to play with their children anymore. This got more of a reaction.
Then I asked her what curse words she knew.
Gracie: The “f” word and the “h” word….and the “c” word.
Me [struggling to draw breath]: The “c” word??
Gracie [eyes downcast]: You know, “crap.”
It’s amazing how often parenthood requires you to stifle laughter.
I did my best to convey that she can always ask me about bad words without fear of punishment. I hope she knows I trust her and have faith in her judgment, because I actually do.
Also, I hope she thinks the “c” word is “crap” for the rest of her life.