Modeling language for children: A pro embraces the job
There’ve been some… things going on in the house lately I’m struggling with.
Other working families, especially those with young children, can sympathize with the pace and tenor of our household – mornings are a loosely choreographed blur of breakfast making, backpack loading and potty sitting; evenings are a prolonged recon mission that brings us to the far corners of the city and involves much fastening of seatbelts and snackage. Evening meals, when fortune grants them, are chaotic episodes of small crowd control that can sometimes result in a test of wills involving uneaten noodles. Dirty clothes and sauce-encrusted dishes pile up hourly. Cherished household items are routinely destroyed or rendered useless. Things disappear when you set them down even for 30 seconds.
The lifestyle can be frustrating, especially for a man like me.
I’m a bit of a control freak, prone to arm-waving, profanity-laden outbursts when things don’t go as I think they should. This is something that happens like once a week in my house, usually when someone carelessly trips over my laptop’s recharging cord (which is now practically useless, by the way) or beats up on his little brother.
Stop hitting your brother!
Like that, except with more… colorful language.
I remember when I first heard the vast trove of dirty words – my father unleashed the whole canon one evening after he barked his shins against an open dishwasher door. I was just 5 years old, but even I knew the sounds coming from his mouth, delivered with such vehemence and fury, had power.
I wasn’t scared. Not really. I was, however, fascinated.
My own early experiments with the low speech were characterized by misfires and poor syntax, but I quickly learned the grammar – the F-word is not an adjective unless you add the prefix -ing and is tricky to convert into an adverb; the S-word, a very handy word indeed, can be deployed with inflections giving it a wide array of meanings – and by the time I was 13 I could string together some fairly colorful sentences. Working in bars for 15 years was like going to finishing school; the only place where people speak more coarsely is in restaurant kitchens, and I could always hold my own in there, too.
The problem, of course, is that I have children, three very observant children who are in a phase of their development the head-shrinkers call “modeling.” That means they watch me and then do like I do.
Greater intellects and mouths more foul than mine have grappled with the dilemma of preventing their children from speaking like Bourbon Street whores. But I’m a man who toils in words every day. I understand their power, yet I know that words are nothing to be afraid of. And, I reasoned back before my kids started actually speaking in full sentences, if they know the meaning behind the words, perhaps it will take some of their mysteries away.
Ten years ago, even five years ago, I would have laughed riotously at cursing children. It’s funny in a Jimmy Kimmel kind of way, like Tanner from The Bad News Bears.
Then I heard my 4-year-old apply the F-word as a descriptive noun to a particularly vexing wood puzzle. Nothing funny about that. Then I got this one the other day in the car:
“Daddy?” the 6-year-old asked. “What’s shit?”
“Uh,” I said. “It’s doodies.”
He was surprised by this.
“Yeah,” I said. “‘Shit’ is doodies. ‘Ass’ is a butt. ‘Crap’ is doodies, too.”
“‘Ass’ is a butt?”
“‘Crap’ is a bad word.” This came from the 4-year-old in the back seat.
“I don’t think ‘crap’ is a bad word,” I said through the rear-view mirror. “But you probably shouldn’t say it in school.”
“Oh. But Daddy, what about ‘fart’?”
He’s been thinking a lot about farts lately, ever since he took down the bulk of a giant can of baked beans with bacon.
“‘Fart?'” I said. “I don’t think so. ‘Fart’ was a bad word when I was a little boy but I think the ruling has changed.”
“Oh. ‘Boogers’ is a bad word.”
He sounded uncertain.
“‘Boogers’ is not a bad word,” I said, “but don’t wipe them on the seat.”
“Okay,” he said. “I know what to do with boogers. You rub them in your hands and they just disappear.”
“Oh,” I said.
“They just disappear, Daddy.”
“Good boy,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.
The 6-year-old rejoined the conversation.
“So ‘crap’ and ‘farts’ is not bad words.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but don’t say them in school.”
“But ‘crap’ just means doodies.”
“I know, but people think it’s rude.”
“What about ‘ass’?”
I had to think about that one. Because sometimes it’s the only word that will do.
“Why don’t you just use ‘butt’ instead.” I said.
I could tell by the look on his face that this matter is far from over.
To comment on this column, email Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.