My son has always been obsessed with words, learning to spell states and football players’ names when he became bored with his spelling words. He currently keeps a list of city names from our state and names of characters from books he reads. And I believe he also has a running list of all the cuss words he knows.
“The H one, the D one, the S, the A,” he says. “I just can’t figure out what the I one is.”
“The I one?” I think as I rack my brain. “What in the world is the I word?”
Years ago, the fact that my kid knew any cuss words in third grade would have bothered me a great deal. I would have felt irresponsible, guilty. But I realize it’s a natural, curious part of growing up. So it’s a little earlier than I would have liked, but I don’t think it’s any earlier than the boys I grew up with.
Though to him learning a new word is like cracking a code into some secret adult society, just knowing satisfies him. He doesn’t use them except, I’m sure, between giggles and whispers with his closest friends as they try to figure out life as third graders. He tells me his new words, but he protects his little sister.
Now that he’s nine, he’s at an age where it’s getting harder to decide where the boundaries are. This doesn’t mean we’re encouraging our son to swear. It means we’re deciding whether our son can possibly be mature enough to handle knowing bad things and not using them, using his own good judgment.
When he was invited to see The Avengers recently, at first I firmly put my foot down. No PG-13 movies. But it’s the summer blockbuster hit everyone and their five-year-old is raving about. After researching the movie and learning the swear words in it, I really didn’t want him to go. I polled a few people whose opinions I trust. One planned to take her seven-year-old. Hmm. Was I being too tough on my son?
I’ve always tried to shelter him from lewd language but when he’s out on his own, it’s out of my control.
When I read to him, I skip over anything I deem unfit. Several months ago, when I mentioned J.K. Rowling has an adult book coming out this year, he wanted to know why he couldn’t read it.
“Does it have cuss words in it? I bet it does if it’s for adults.”
“There are cuss words in Harry Potter,” I told him, surprised he hadn’t noticed during his reading. I even slipped and read damn one night in the throes of a heated dialogue.
“Is it the J one? Because I don’t know what that one means,” he said.
My husband so rarely gets to witness these conversations. “The J one?” he said. “I don’t even want to know what that one is.”
My son whispered into my husband’s ear, and I was thrilled to not have to explain what a word means. “That’s a donkey.”
“A donkey?” my son said. Bubble burst. The meanings really take the fun out of knowing a bad word.
“Well, I know it doesn’t have the B one,” my son continued. “That’s written on the back of the stall in the fifth-grade boys’ bathroom.”
I remember this struggle when I was a kid. I had learned a few choice words, possibly from my dad. In fourth grade he was nagging me about leaving my bike in the rain and in my retort, I couldn’t remember which word to use. “Well how the hell was I supposed to know?” Innocent mistake, though I’m not sure heck would have really been any better.
We’ve had our own incidents but not as bad as I’d expect, especially for a boy who collects bad words like pirate treasure. I found something in his backpack with bad words written on it. His friend gave him a quarter to write them. I was disappointed that he was stupid enough to do what his friend said. We had a long talk about those words, the principal, and the phrase, “If your friend told you to jump off a cliff…”
I want my kids to understand words, to understand that they can have more than one meaning, that they can hurt, that they can be nasty, and that they can be effective.
The word I do worry about? It’s an I word: ignorance. I won’t tolerate any words that deal with that.
And the movie? We let him see it. He was so enthralled by the action, he didn’t notice any bad words. I worried for nothing.