This post was written by Amy Vernon. Photo credit: Steven Puetzer/Getty Images.
It came out of the blue one quiet Saturday at home.
"F*&^" my older son said when something happened on the computer where he was sitting, playing a game on NickJr.com.
My husband and I gasped, looked at each other and froze in our seats.
It wasn't that we were so scandalized by the word. We have both, after all, said worse in our lives, though we virtually never have around the boys.
Rather, our brains were racing, as we tried to figure out how to make it clear to him that he was not to say this word again, yet not make it so enticing that he'd want to use it just to make us or someone else angry at a particularly mischevious moment.
We also, I suppose, were trying to figure out which of us may have been the offender who slipped up and inadvertently taught our son, who was 5, the dreaded "F-curse."
I flashed back to my own first grade experience when a boy named Rodney scandalized my entire class by saying the "F-word." I didn't even know what word that might be, and no one would tell me. Rodney was sent to the principal's office and it was all anyone could talk about in first-grade gossip circles.
Today, I find it extremely hard to believe a child would be sent to the principal's office on such a relatively minor offense and can't really decide if that's a good or bad thing.
I didn't want to find out, however, and the husband and I asked Rafael where he'd heard the word. "It's what you say when the computer breaks."
Upon further questioning, it became clear that he meant "you" in the global sense and not us specifically, but in either case, he wasn't really wrong. Which is, of course, funny in that way that children saying wildly inappropriate but accurate things is funny when they're not your children. And even sometimes when they are.
Somehow or another, we managed to get across to him - without disproportionately emphasizing it - that this word was not a one you should say. He's never said it in front of us again and his teachers have not reported any such incidents (we've had very close relationships with his teachers and even if they wouldn't have sent him to the principal's office for it, they would have told us).
When I told this story to friends last night (to much laughter, especially when told Rafael's reason for saying the word), it got me thinking about how much power we give to certain words.
Whenever anyone in our house says the word "stupid," for example, Rafael is scandalized and immediately points out that person said a bad word, because that's what he's been told by teachers in school. While it's laudable that teachers are trying to prevent children from bullying each other verbally, the more we clamp down on language, the more power we give it.
If someone were to call me stupid it 1) wouldn't be the first time, 2) won't be the last and 3) really isn't going to bother me in the slightest.
But if someone were to call my son stupid, it would have a far greater effect on his psyche - and not just because he's younger and has less experience dealing with jerks. It's because that word has a special designation in his mind as a "bad" word, so the power it holds over him is far greater than it should.
Don't get me wrong. I do not at all advocate allowing children to swear at will and without consequence. The fact is, certain words do have a certain power, whether it's to shock or hurt or help.
And there can't be a generic list that applies to all children everywhere, either, because everyone's different, though there are certain words that just shouldn't come out of little mouths.
But once you add "stupid" to that list, where do you go from there? How about silly? Some people might not like that word and it might make them feel badly.
I don't want to second-guess the teachers who told the children not to say the word stupid, because they're right, in a way. You shouldn't call other people stupid. It's not nice.
That said, lots of people aren't nice. So why should we pretend that everyone adheres to the "nice" rule and will get in trouble if they don't?
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