My Kid Swears. And It's All My Fault

4 years ago

So my darling ten-year-old son has a problem. A problem he's had for many years. Which is that he can't sleep in his bed. He can't sleep in mine, anymore, either, so he ends up sleeping on a sofa most nights, to be closer to me. Because I won't let him sleep in my bed (since 2009) or in my bedroom (since 2012) in an attempt to get him to sleep where he's supposed to.

But that's not his only problem.

Credit Image: rtgregory on Flickr

His other problem is a complete and utter love of swear words.

How do these two things relate? Well, I'll tell you. In our never-ending conversation about why it is good to sleep in his bed and how do we, together, get him to sleep through the night in his bed, he came up with a plan: "I know, mom! I'll put a sign on my door that says 'Stay in bed!' so when I wake up in the middle of the night I see it and turn around and get back in bed.' "

Great idea! I said with all the enthusiasm a mother of a child who has not slept the whole night in his bed for more than five years.

He brings me the sign to show me, so proud.

It says "Stay in $@#% bed!!"

My jaw drops open. "Zack! Just… No!"

His face falls, "But… but it's not the words!"

"I know, but it replaces the words, it means the words. It's the same thing. No. I'm sorry. No. That is in no way appropriate."

"Okay," he says, dejected and rejected, and proceeds to crumple up the sign. Which he then four seconds later decides to recycle and use the back of it for his rated-G sign, partly, I think, because he thrills to the notion of the not-word that means bad words still on the back, burning a hole through his door and his consciousness.

How did he even know what "$#@%&" meant or stood for?

I am dumbfounded.

Let me admit, however, that I am no stranger to swearing. It's a terrible habit of mine, and one that I tried to curb after the first time I heard my sweet two-year-old say "Goddammit!" to Arthur, his favorite train from the Thomas the Tank Engine Universe, in his high, reedy voice, in exactly the same cadence that I say it, usually after I've dropped something. I walked over to the sofa, to see what Arthur could possibly be doing that caused such consternation, and my blonde cherub beamed up at me with a clever -- or was it knowing? little smile.

A few years later, I adopted the strategy that I would pay my son a quarter every time I used a swear word around him. Inevitably, he got rich. And, this arrangement also taught him to intentionally provoke me in ways that would lead me to swear. I made all kinds of designations that "When you make Mommy mad you can't get a quarter," but it was a losing battle. Finally, I just converted the quarters to a ten-dollar bill (believe me, he was due more) and bought my way out of the losing game.

And instead, I introduced the idea of context: "Have you ever heard me swear around Grandma?" "Do you think I swear around my boss?" "Would I ever have sworn in front of my mom and dad?" Oh, rats, well, he did have a few examples of that from before they passed away. Jeez! He was so little then! How could he remember!? But I'd made the point. And also, that swearing is an adult thing.

But he's relentless. He pointed out that his friend, Luca, was allowed to say "crap," which I was still insisting was a swear word. So Zack started up his very one one-man Indecent-Language Police Squad, made up of just himself, and began reporting all the different places he heard different kinds of swear words, and why that meant that it was okay to say them.

To his credit, Zack never actually repeats the words he's reporting on. He finds clever ways to make sure I know what he's talking about. "You know, mom, the word that means poop." Or "That really, really bad word that starts with F." He knows the rule is no swearing, so he doesn't swear. What he also doesn't do is ever stop talking about or thinking about or pointing out swearing.

Somewhere along the line, Zack decided to be his own censor, which actually, to my mind, was a further step in the wrong direction. "What the *beeeeep*?" he says now, whenever something surprising happens. The first time he used that tactic, I said, "No way, Mister. That is just as bad as swearing. Because the listener automatically fills in the blank." But my battle against this wordplay was lost before it was even begun. I mean, if even the brilliant and educational cast of the completely awesome science-and-explosions show "Mythbusters" have to be beeped on a regular basis, I'm clearly in the wrong.

"Beep" is in. Even though it makes me bleeping pissed.

So I guess I shouldn't have been at all surprised when he came up with the "#$%&@" for his sign. He reads comics. He watches (highly edited by me, not so much by his dad) cartoons. He's read Garfield, The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes. Who knows which of those introduced him to the siren song of "#$%&" or "*&%#@" or even just "****"…

All I know is that it's a losing battle, not just for my failures as an inveterate swearer myself. But also for having the good fortune of giving birth to a smart, attentive, willful kid, who's decided that my attempts to get him not to swear are a puzzle to be solved with creativity, a wink of his eye, and a little bit of "beeeeeeeep."

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