Mom stirred a steaming pot while I anticipated our spaghetti dinner. My older brother joked around on the phone, his speaking range limited to within-kitchen-hearing-distance because it was the mid-1980s. (You know, cord phones!) During my brother’s friendly argument he loudly exclaimed, “BS!”, which was followed by my mom quickly shooting him a look that signaled to me with her eyes. She clearly wanted him to pay attention that I was around. Intrigued, I began pestering. “What does BS mean?” Mom tried to dodge it, “Oh, Kathleen. You’ll find out soon enough.” Dave cut in with, “Bologna stuffings” and my mom laughed. Initially doubtful, I questioned them further, but they banded together and held strong. Probably because I was six, I believed them.
Naive and gullible, I vehemently defended myself ALL THE WAY TO JUNIOR HIGH. One day while confidently standing by Bologna Stuffings, the laughter from my group of friends pushed through my wall of certainty. I realized they were right. My stomach sank with embarrassment and anger. I had been duped.
I’d guess that it was a common American belief in the 1980s among suburban white families that young kids shouldn’t be exposed to the details of potentially threatening aspects of life, including sex, alcohol, racism, and cussing. As a preschooler and elementary school child, the only social topic I remember being explicitly taught was “Stranger Danger.” (Did you also hide behind bushes when all vans without windows passed?) All of the other topics remained off-limits, though we were inevitably exposed to them on television screens, bathroom stall walls, bus rides, and playground conversations. Among parents and children, though, silence reigned.
With each passing year of parenting, my conviction grows stronger that silence leads to stigma and taboo. The absence of a conversation about any potentially awkward, embarrassing or painful topic makes my children think that it is not to be discussed at home. If I’m not willing to share my embarrassing moments, my child won’t either. If I am not willing to engage in conversations about race, my child will not either. If I won’t talk to them about sex, they won’t either. I believe that a very important part of my job is to not only field these questions and enter a developmentally appropriate conversation, but to also bring topics up should the kids not do so. (Not all kids are inquisitive out loud. Some are so naive they don’t know what they should know. Like those who believe in Bologna Stuffings. Or Santa at age twelve.)
So, when Charlie asked me what “the F-word” was while walking home after just days of being in first grade, I knew I didn’t want to dodge the question. Miles was with us at the time, though, so I told him we could talk about it when we were alone. (Miles was three and showing far too much pleasure in testing boundaries for me to risk him knowing the word fuck. We recently took a walk around our neighborhood lake and he called a passing old man a “blockhead.” Miles was tired and hungry- apparently one wrong look was enough to send him over the edge. “Welcome to Seattle, sir! He’s the three-year-old welcoming committee!”)
I forgot to continue the conversation after Miles went to bed, and a few months passed before Charlie brought it up again while we were alone. I knew it was time to seize the opportunity, so I proceeded slowly with some thought and care. Knowing his tendency to follow rules was comforting to me. He wasn’t the kid who would use the word willy-nilly, nor use it against us in a power play. Because he is more cautious, I wanted to make sure that the primary message was that he could come to me with these things. I was trusting him, and he could trust me.
While trying my best to maintain a calm tone because I was uncomfortable with the novelty of saying fuck in front of my six-year-old son, I told him that it’s another word for sex (which he knows about) but that it’s most often used to be mean or express anger. My words went something like, “People say “Fuck you” when they’re really angry but it hurts people’s feelings. People also say it when they’re upset about something.” He asked a few questions and then tried to use it. That was funny. Even funnier when he tried it a few weeks later while giggling about jokes with Harry and I (after Miles went to bed). He uttered the most innocent, cute “fuck” I’ve ever heard. He hasn’t used it since.
Of course, our discussion came with warnings. I told him that because it’s a word that upsets many people, we have to be very careful with it. I told him that until he’s old enough to use it appropriately, he shouldn’t say it anywhere except when he’s alone with Harry and I. I also admonished him to never, ever, EVER say it in front of his brother, the King-of-Stupid-and-Blockhead-Name Calling (thank you, Charlie Brown). The last thing I needed was Miles regularly saying “Fuck you!” to the cute old men strolling the lake.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not currently feeling the need to introduce all cuss words to Charlie. We certainly don’t have a checklist that we’re working through. (He is also not ready for conversations about the many horrific, violent acts that occur in the world!) I imagine he’ll bring swearing up again shortly, and certainly be exposed to to plenty of the world’s horror soon enough. We are tackling these topics one developmentally-appropriate bite at a time. But I am thankful that along with sex and race, he knows he can talk to us about swear words.
I realize that we might offend a few people by having this discussion so young. He might even teach a few classmates about these topics. He certainly wouldn’t be the first kid to break such news to another kid. At least he’d be sparing them from it happening in middle school. (No child wants to be defending “Fiddlesticks” in the halls.) Either way, it’s a risk I’m willing to take to maintain open lines of communication in our home.