One Sunday afternoon, my seven year-old son was building Legos at the kitchen table with his back to me. I was cooking dinner, minding my own business, and then it happened. Out of the silence, he asked a question…
“Mom, is f**k a word?” he mumbled.
(insert record scratch sound)
“Excuse me?” I said as I questioned my hearing. Surely not.
“Is f**k a word?” he repeated a bit louder… face still buried in his Legos.
Yep. Sounded the same again. Denial set in, and I thought I’d give him one more shot.
“I’m not sure I heard you, buddy. Turn around so I can see you. What did you say?” I asked while holding my breath. Fingers crossed.
He turned and spoke, clearly and loudly. “I asked you if f**k is a word?!” Slightly annoyed, he waited for my reply.
Confirmed. I scrambled to pull up my mental Mom Manual to see what it said about dealing with first grade boys who know words that cause R-ratings. Chapter missing. Out of the sheer need to break the silence and stare of my now-attentive boy, I said, in the calmest voice that I could…
“Um. Yes. It’s a word. Why are you asking?” (Answering a question with a question is a great stall tactic.)
“A kid at school said f**k is a word, and I told him that it wasn’t.”
That helped a little. At least I knew my son wasn’t sneaking peeks of Goodfellas on the sly. This new vernacular was, perhaps, “gifted” to him…as opposed to him looking for it. My second thought, I’m embarrassed to say, was, “Why isn’t Billy here to field this?” My husband always seems to know the perfect thing to say in moments like this, but I tend to be – um – more direct.
So, as my mind raced, I figured I would just play the hand the way my son had dealt it. I decided to answer his question straight up.
I explained that f**k was, indeed, a word, but that it was a naughty way of saying that something was “really messed up.” (I realize this isn’t the “first definition” of the word in Webster’s, but that’s as far as I was ready to go. Trust me, the other “talk” can wait for a moment when I’m not worried about my kid swearing like a sailor). I told him that kids who use That Word end up in The Principal’s Office. That was enough for him to realize that he possessed something dangerous.
“Oohhhh,” he said, nodded, and turned back to his Lego work.
I know my kid, and I could tell that he got it. The parent in me realizes that we’ll return to that conversation, but we’ll be good for a while. Maybe I can breath for a few weeks or so.
Do you have a strategy for dealing with surprise conversations like this one? Since this exchange, Billy and I’ve chatted about how to help our kids understand the power of words…both good and bad. For us, everything we do hangs on two simple principles. Clearly, this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s the essence of what we’re working on:
1. Protection must yield to preparation. When kids are little, job #1 for a parent is to provide protection. Eventually, however, that gives way to preparing kids to make their own decisions. We can shield our kids from bad influences (sketchy friends, inappropriate media, certain environments), but we won’t be able to do this their whole life. This is especially true with words. They will hear every kind of word, and they have to make decisions on what they’re going to repeat.
So, as our kids grow, we are using opportunities (like the now legendary Lego F-bomb drop) to prepare our kids for their future. Sure, it is easier to say, “We don’t say that or associate with those that do” and move on. (Protection, yes. Preparation, no. )
However, our kids have to sift through lots of words in the world. Some words are helpful, affirming, creative, and useful. Other words hurt, insult, offend, or degrade who we truly are. We want to prepare them to know the difference and give them the courage to make the right choice.
Of course, we aren’t in the business of “teaching” our kids curse words, but when the conversations arise we want them to understand the power in using words well.
2. Make conversations safe. I can’t tell you how close I was to reacting in a BIG way (shock & awe perhaps?) to my kid that day. However, my son’s personality is low-gear. He doesn’t like big surprises. A blow-up moment for me or high reaction would primarily have translated into, “Next time you don’t know a word, don’t ask mom. Ask the kids on the bus.”
I need not shoot myself in the foot.
Fortunately, this time, I caught myself and we calmly talked about That Word. I found that, contrary to my first feeling, I didn’t need emotion to make my point. As his mom, I am a safe and credible source of information. That’s why he asked me.
As parents, our goal is to treat every “pivotal” conversation the same way, regardless of the “shock value” of the subject. We’re banking on the fact that our kids will feel safe asking us about “whatever” in the future…including words, peer pressure, dating, drugs, or (ahem) sex. Our temperature and flinch-factor in each of these conversations will pave or prevent the way for meaningful preparation.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.
Prepare and keep the communication environment safe.
Ultimately, words define a person by creating beauty or destruction; by expressing love or hate; by filling others up or tearing them down. Words matter. Each word you speak is an investment that can bring a great return or can be as wasteful as dropping quarters in that dang claw machine that my kids always want to play.
Overall, choose your words wisely.
And when your kids surprise you, think like a Brit and – Keep calm & carry on.