Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bad words out of the mouths of... wait, what counts as a bad word?

I was at my mommy group last Tuesday, and the topic of children speaking bad words came up.

(I have a mommy group now! It only took me two years to get into one!)

One mom's elementary-school-age daughter came home from school with a citation. For assault. Her crime? Making a razzberry at her classmate. The mom reported that she supported the teacher's decision by giving the girl a very stern lecture.

Another mom described how she caught her son saying, "Darn it!"

My husband and I are... hmm, how shall I put this? We are not like that. We yell the S word when we drop things on our toes. we refer to the TV show "Bullshit" by its proper name. We wonder what the hell has gotten into people. We laugh at silly euphemisms. ("We gotta get these monkeyfighting snakes off this Monday-Friday plane!")

We have a game we play with our son. It goes like this:

Cloud: "Oh geeeeze!"
Me: "Oh man!"
Daddy: "Oh drat!"

On and on, ad nauseum.

Can my kid get in trouble at school for talking the same way at school as he does at home? My guess is, absolutely! And then what will I do?

Teachers believe that I should support their decisions. I know because I'm married to a teacher, and because I read articles on the internet by teachers making this request. It's a reasonable request. Teachers don't want to be stuck in an endless cycle of discipline drama. When a parent supports the child over the teacher, it undermines the teacher's authority, and losing authority means losing control in the class.

However, I can't be sternly lecturing my child over every unfair citation given to him over silly behavior disagreements. I don't want him to be a bully, but I don't want him to be completely unexposed to the idea of childhood teasing either. Teasing is a fact of life. It happens in adulthood, too. What will happen if he grows up, and then one day finds a comment on his blog that says, "YOU SUC YOU STUPID MORON I HAVE PERSINNAL EXPEIRENCE WITH THS TOPIC AND PPL LIK YOU DEZERVE TO BE SHOT!"?

Of course, in today's culture, the slightest teasing sentiment is met by admonitions that the kid has just irrevocably traumatized his classmate. It's the hit-a-fly-with-a-sledgehammer style solution. I know that kids can be cruel to each other. I was, if not excessively teased per se, at least not very far up the social ladder.

(The social ladder is a terrible construct, and I think encouraging kids to abolish it is a better solution than shaming them for teasing each other. Teasing is just a symptom of the social hierarchy game. It used to be that kids formed a social ladder naturally based on their ages, but when all the kids are the same age, they tend to try to force a social hierarchy into existence. They don't have to. But once a few of them start the process, it consumes everyone.)

Anyway, I think there's a middle ground between letting my kid get away with bad behavior in the classroom and stomping on him every time he scowls at his classmates. I can't support a really bad discipline decision made by the teacher. For one thing, my stern lecture will sound totally insincere - I have a policy of honesty with my son, and I'll let him know my true feelings. How else will he learn how the world works? Superimposing a partly fictional world of false rules and imaginary order onto real life helps no one, not even kids.

(That's why I'm not pushing the Santa Claus thing. When people ask me why I'm doing such a sloppy job at convincing him of Santa Claus, I say, "Come on, it's not that good a story. If I'm going to pull a fast one on my kid, it'll be over something much better conceived.")

And for another thing, if self-esteem is the issue here, I don't see how citing small children for tiny infractions will help their self-esteem. The girl performing the razzberry knows it was grossly unfair, the girl who received the razzberry knows it was grossly unfair, and the teacher's authority has been usurped by a sense of distrust and suspicion. I know. I harbored distrust and suspicion for every teacher who ever shamed me and/or treated me unfairly. There was no particular teacher who did it a lot. Most only did it once. But one incident would make me shut down in front of that teacher forever after. I was a deeply distrustful kid. It really took unfailing and genuine fairness to keep me open.

I think I'm much more forgiving now. I let small things slide. But I have my limits, and I still have the instinct to protect my kid.

I just don't protect him from the eight words you can't say on television. And this new thing about protecting kids from mildly negative words like "darn" and "stupid" and "hate" ain't happening. I can't imagine the amount of self-censorship that would require. And to what end? If you remove the word "hate" from a child's vocabulary, you take away his ability to express a lot of really important thoughts! At least until he learns the phrases, "That bothers me" and "I could probably stand to live without that."

I can't wait that long. I know what it's like to have a kid whose ability to communicate lags far behind his ability to think of things he wishes to communicate. I want him to have his tools as early as possible! Even if those tools have the word "hate" in them.

Also, the "Oh darn! Oh geez!" game is really cute.


  1. Okay, so I'm lame and I don't let my kids say any of those words, but for the most part I don't talk like that (again with the lameness). I do sometimes say stupid and hate, but I just don't say them in front of the kids...mostly. They do catch me sometimes and I pull out the Adults vs Kids and The Things We're Allowed to Do argument.

    I don't freak out when they say them but I redirect them with whatever I've deemed more appropriate. But my kids are preschoolers and I think that some things just sound rude coming out of little mouths and they have no judiciousness with how they use words. I think as they get older and can understand that it's okay to say "I hate that stupid game" versus "I hate that stupid kid" then I'll loosen up a bit, but for now it's easier just to teach them a more polite vocabulary.

  2. Mine's a preschooler too. He's 3.

    Hey, some people aren't bothered by the effort it takes to censor, redirect, etc. their kids into a more careful use of language. I think it's amazing that they've gotten to that point, but a lot of people have never left that point. I think it has a lot to do with social circles. Our social circles have always tended to be very adult. I think the kid is going to grow up amongst adults. That's just our life.

  3. I hope my comment didn't sound defensive/judge-y. I thought the post was interesting and I was saying how we handle it.

    That first part where I said "Okay, so I'm lame..." I meant that. It wasn't sarcasm or an attitude. I fully own my lameness! lol. Further underscored by the fact that we don't have a social circle!