My four year old son Valentino is quite articulate – we have never spoken to him in “baby talk” or “simple talk” – we speak to him as a thinking individual, and he responds to us in the same manner. It doesn’t mean that he does not say the darndest things – in fact the most mileage I get from my Facebook posts are often my “Conversations with Tino.” Most recently our conversations are not only getting deeper, they are getting more complicated and more diverse. One conversation I was not expecting to have at four years old was the one that surfaced at dinner last night, it was about words.
Tino: Stupid is a bad word, right?
Me: Yes it’s not good to use the word stupid. It might hurt someone’s feelings.
Tino: Do you know the “F Word”?
Me: (Completely blindsided, in shock, and realizing how important this moment was going to be) – Tino, I’m not sure what you mean by the F word? There are many words that begin with the letter F.
Tino: No I mean the really bad one, it’s the worst word you can ever say.
Me: No I’m not familiar, who told you about this F word?
Tino: (Naming the boy in his preschool class) – He told me it’s the most bad word ever.
Me: I see, well then for sure we won’t want to say that.
This was the worst fail as a teachable moment and conversation for me as I was just so caught off guard at that point.
For the most part, swearing and cursing has never been part of my own vocabulary. It is not something I heard as a child growing up. This was mostly a cultural factor – my father spoke limited English, and swearing was not really part of it. By the time I was in high school and I started hearing swearing as part of people’s regular speech. It really did not have much power for me. In fact if I’m being honest, I’m a little bit of a language snob – I have always thought there were much more powerful ways to say something than using slang or curse words.
However, curse words, foul language or swearing have always been fascinating to me – I think it speaks to a society’s area of oppression or regression. As an example, in America – our cursing is very sexually explicit. I have always felt that this was because we are such a sexually repressed culture for the most part. If you don’t think so, just look at our politics. In the French language and culture most cursing centers around religious symbolism – this comes from the days of oppression on society from the Catholic Church. I remember the first time I heard someone say, “Advance de tabernac” (Go to Church!) which carried the weight of “Go to Hell!”
When my own father wanted to make a point or make me know how disappointed he was with a given choice – he would use words that were very powerful to me, words like dishonor, disrespect, ignorance or shame. These were the words that carried power, and when he used them they had the same or deeper impact than any swear or curse word could have ever carried.
As a result of not being exposed to much cursing at home – I do remember how I learned to swear and what the words meant. As a young teen – I got my hands on a Penthouse Magazine – I remember reading the stories in the magazine with a dictionary. I would read a word (many words) that I did not know, including the F word, looking it up in the dictionary and trying to make sense of it. I have a very embarrassing memory in high school of hearing the word “C*NT” for the first time. I had never heard the word, and I did not know what it meant. Nor could I find the word in an anatomy book. I couldn’t ask my father – he also did not know these words, or if he did he would never discuss them. So I had to ask around until someone would give me some reasonable information, sometimes it was good information, but often times it was not. I learned many things like this the hard way.
So after a night of thinking about the F Word conversation with Tino, I knew we were going to have to approach this like every other conversation. I decided I would wait till the next time he brought it up. Of course I thought I had some time, but nope. The next morning while driving him to school:
Tino: Daddy, do you remember when I told you about the F Word?
Me: Yes Tino, I do.
Tino: Is that a worse word than BUTT?
Me: Actually Tino, did you know that there are really no “BAD” words?
Tino: Really? But (name) says this is a bad word.
Me: Tino do you remember the other day when you asked me about “The Force” in Star Wars?
Me: Remember that Kylo Ren and Rey both had the power of the Force. You told me that Kylo Ren was using the force for bad, but Ren was using the force for good? Do you remember that?
Me: Words are the same as The Force Tino, you can choose to use your words for bad or you can choose to use your words for good. Words alone have no power – but when you combine them with your intention they can do good things or bad things.
Tino: Like BUTT! I have a butt, you have a butt, Papa has a butt, Lillo and Stitch (our dogs) have a butt – so that is not bad – but if I say “you’re a butt head” then that is bad.
Me: Yes Tino the word butt is not a bad word, we all have a butt – but when you use the word with the intention to hurt someone then the word is still not bad but your intention or choice to hurt some one is not vey nice.
Tino: It’s important to use the Force for good.
Me: Yes Tino it is.
The flow of this conversation had come naturally because we had just watched The Force Awakens (for the fourth time) and Tino had already been talking with me about the Force. I just found it useful to use something that he was already relating to as a discussion point.
I know this is just the beginning of many such hard conversations, but I am determined not to shy away from them or sweep them under a rug just because I am not prepared. Most importantly I want my son to know he can ask me anything and I will give him the most honest and accurate information possible. I never want to speak down to his ability to articulate or understand and I especially don’t want words to carry power that they should not have. The very next day he came home with the word ‘Boobies.” I chuckled inside and remembered a quote from Yoda, “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”
– Dean Wong
Photo courtesy of Kathryn Reiger