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Well, it finally happened. A few days ago, the Little Man uttered the words. Kelly was sitting on the couch with the baby, and I was kneeling in front of the car seat, fiddling with the straps. The Little Man was playing a game on the iPad. Things were not going as expected in the game. He started with something modest. “You gotta be kidding me!” This is something he definitely got from me. But things escalated quickly, and before I knew it I was hearing him utter, in full frustration, “What the f–k!”
I looked up in surprise. “What did he just say,” I said.
“What the f–k!” the Little Man repeated, both to me, and his game.
Kelly, always the picture of calm and reasonableness, said, “That’s not something we should say. Where did you hear it?”
The Little Man shrugged.
“Well, I don’t want to hear you saying that,” Kelly said.
Meanwhile, I had stepped out the front door, because I was collapsing into laughter, and I knew if Little Man saw me laughing, it would not be good.
When I finally calmed down, I wondered how it was possible for a 7-year-old to have a literal, and vocal WTF moment. He’s 7! And then I recalled when I first learned the f-word, and you know what? I was 7, too. I learned it from some girls a little older than I was, who lived on the street behind us in our small New Jersey town. I had to be 7 because we moved to New England shortly after I learned the word, and I was about 7-and-a-half when we moved.
I was always terrified to use bad language in front of adults, especially my parents. To this day, I can’t use bad language in front of my parents, although they use it from time to time, and my siblings have no qualms about using it in front of them.
Shining a spotlight on it gives it a weight outside its proportion.
That’s not to say that I never used it. There was a time, around 7th grade, when it seemed as if me and my friends used the word “f–kin’” as a substitute for “like.” As in: “We were f–kin’ walking to 7-11, and I got a f–kin’ rock in my f–kin’ shoe.”
I don’t know, maybe it made us feel like grownups, although I’m suspect of this, since I knew very few grownups who spoke this way. Eventually, profanity faded from my vocabulary almost entirely. This has more to do with my literary influences and less to do with any moral repugnance for the terms.
Even in my fiction, my characters rarely use profanity. When they do, someone always seems to notice. In my story “Take One for the Road” (Analog June 2011), the main character uses the word “shit” at some point. The biggest complaint about the story among Analog readers was the fact that the old man in the story said “shit.” Go figure. As I’ve matured as a writer, my characters have used profanity more often, where it is appropriate. But I still hesitate to use it myself. There are times of great frustration where I can curse with the best of them, and let forth a volley of profanity that would make George Carlin proud. But those moments are rare.
Two things about this incident with the Little Man were eye-opening. The first was my realization that I was also 7 when I learned the f-word. The other was an observation that Kelly made. She said, “Well, at least he used the term in the correct context.”
Which was absolutely true.
I think Kelly had the right approach. We explained to the Little Man that it wasn’t a nice thing to say, and that we shouldn’t say things like that. We didn’t ask him where he learned it. We knew he learned it the same way I learned it: hearing from other people. Beyond that, we didn’t make a big deal about it. Shining a spotlight on it gives it a weight outside its proportion. He’s a good kid, and just needed to be told that it wasn’t something that kids should be saying. That won’t stop him from saying it around his friends. I know this because it never stopped me. But it will make him consider its audience before using it.
Jamie Todd Rubin is a writer, blogger, and coder. Check out his website www.jamierubin.net.