Out of the mouths of babes, we sometimes catch a glimpse of ourselves.
It was a beautiful, normal weekday afternoon. I had just picked the kids up from school and spirits were high; it was nearing the end of the school year, and school demands had eased up. We were driving home when a car swerved in front of me, cutting me off. My world stopped. My heart felt like it detonated in my chest. I slammed on the brakes . . . S c r e e e e c h . . .
. . . Nothing. Accident avoided. We drove on.
“Dad,” my eight-year-old daughter said. “What? Are you guys okay?” I asked, looking in the rearview mirror. “We’re fine, but you swore. You said asshole,” she said with such conviction that it made me smile.
“I did?” I said, “I guess I didn’t realize it. I’m sorry. I was just surprised and scared, that’s all.” I watched their faces in the rearview mirror, making sure that they bought my explanation and apology. They seemed to accept it; we drove on in silence.
Not more than five minutes later, my four-year-old son yelled, “Asshole” from the backseat. “Jonas,” I said, shocked at the vulgarity that passed his lips. “What?” he asked. “You swore,” I said. “I did?” he asked. “I didn’t realize it.”
I laughed reflexively without thinking before I could assume the parental role and be upset that he swore. “You know you’re not supposed to swear, right? You know you can’t say that word in public, right?” “I know,” he said and smiled.
We continued driving, and I wondered how many swear words the kids actually knew and if they knew what they meant. Did they learn them from school or from home? “Why don’t we have a swear minute where you two are allowed to say all of the swear words you know in one minute?” I suggested. “Okay,” Jonas said, eager to let the swears rip. “Really? We won’t get in trouble?” my daughter, Delia, asked. “Nope. You have a free minute to swear,” I said, consulting the rearview mirror. “You can say anything you want, and you won’t get in trouble.”
“Okay,” Delia said hesitantly. “Fuck,” Jonas said. “Wow, buddy. That’s a big one. Where’d you learn that one?” I asked. “I heard you say it.” “Really? When?” “When you were watching football,” he said. “Do you know what it means?” I asked, panicked. “No. What does it mean?” he asked. “Well, I can’t tell you until you’re older, but you should never, ever, EVER use it. It’s the worst one,” I said. “Okay,” he said. “Can you give me a hint?” “I’ll tell you when you’re a teenager.”
“I know one,” Delia piped in. “Okay. What do you know?” “Shit, ass, bitch, bastard,” she said. I saw a wry smile sitting between her flushed cheeks. “Wow!” I said. “Do you know what any of those mean?” “No. Will you tell me?” I proceeded to delicately tell her about the words ass and shit and how rude and inappropriate they were, but skillfully veered the conversation away from having to define bastard and bitch. I felt like those words were too nuanced and could potentially lead to uncomfortable questions about reproduction; something I desperately wanted to avoid for as long as I could.
“There’s this, too,” she said and held her middle finger up so I could see it in the mirror. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “What’s that mean?” “It means penis,” Jonas interjected, holding both of his middle fingers up for all the world to see. “Yeah,” she said, “it means penis.” “Okay, swear minute is over. Put your fingers down,” I said. They complied.
“Who wants ice cream from McDonald’s?” I asked, thinking that ice cream would be a good buffer between the swear minute and their mother, my wife, Laura. The last thing I wanted was to have them continue this conversation with their mother. I didn’t really think she’d appreciate or approve of me giving them this swear minute.
Later that week, Jonas was sitting crisscross-applesauce on the couch in the living room playing Angry Birds on his iPad, and out of nowhere he yelled, “Awww, shit!” “Jonas!” his mother exhaled. “What did you just say?” “I said, aww shit,” he replied without looking up from the iPad on his lap. “That is NOT acceptable language,” she said. “Yeah, it’s okay,” he said, finally looking up from his game. “It’s a swear minute, right dad?” he asked. Again, I was caught outside of my parenting zone, and I laughed. I caught a disapproving look from my wife, and l turned my back to them until I was able to regain my composure and get back into father mode.
“Family meeting in the kitchen,” Laura called after hearing my retelling of the swear minute earlier that week. “Damage control,” she said to me as we walked into the kitchen. Jonas put his iPad down and climbed up to his seat at the table, and Delia came out of her room and plopped down into her chair. We all sat, facing each other, at the round table.
“Swearing is not something that we should not be doing in our family. It’s crude, and I think there are much better ways for us to express ourselves,” Laura said. “We can be more creative than swearing.” The kids nodded in agreement. “Let’s all make up some words to use instead of swear words,” she encouraged.
“Oh, I’ve got one,” Delia said. “Okay. What is it?” Laura asked. “Swapper-doodle,” she said with a proud smile spread across her face. “Okay, let’s try it,” Laura said. “Aww, swapper-doodle!” Delia smiled again. “Son of a swapper-doodle,” she said. “I’ve got a new word,” Jonas said. “Okay! What’s yours?” Laura asked.
“Asshole!” he said. And of course, I couldn’t help myself . . . I laughed.
Photo credit:Flickr/David Long