When Your Child Says “Fuck” for the First Time
I wasn’t ready for it.
Not yet. I mean, I knew it would come one day like something in the mail, like something I sent away for. But I just didn’t think it would happen on a nondescript morning like this.
But parenthood is funny like that.
One moment you’re cruising along, one hand on the wheel, window down, sunglasses on and then, like a sucker punch to the temple, you’re reminded that you’re not in control. And probably never have been.
So with a pair of mangled sunglasses dangling off an ear, you straighten up and attempt to piece together what the hell just happened.
I wake the coffee maker, the laptop and move to the kitchen sink and watch slivers of morning light break the dark veil of day and think about you. I think about what I want to say to you this morning.
As the coffee maker burps, grunts and beeps the old brain begins to turn over ideas: Presidents. Dictators. Walls. Mannequins. Racism. Killer Clowns. I pour a cup and move to the living room and ark myself on the couch.
I sip and stare into the hallow glow of the laptop and wait. I wait for the barrel-chested ghost of Ernest Hemingway to appear and inspire me, remind me that all I have to do is “write one true sentence” but instead of Ernie H, my 6 year old son Chase turns the corner sporting glassy eyes, a spiky tuft of bedhead and his faded green Ninja Turtle pajamas.
Pajamas that have been machine-washed too many times. Pajamas that fit him nicely in June but are now thread-stretched to its limits, forcing the once brave Donatello to beg for mercy.
Chase curls next to me and rests his head on my shoulder.
The TV is off yet we watch it like its on. The sun is rising behind me, filling the windows, warming my back.
“Hey dad, do I have a soccer game today?”
“Yes you do buddy.”
“Hey dad, do you think when I’m older I could be a soccer player? Like the kind that plays on TV.”
I tussled his bedhead. Smile and in a hearty dad voice offer my son the most unoriginal dad response I could, “Son, you can be anything you want to be.”
Things were perfectly quit between us. Just a father and his son enjoying the company of each other in the slow of a Sunday morning.
Do you know the “f” word?”
Pow! Sucker punch to the temple. Chew on that dad.
“Uh, um, uh…yeah? What? I mean, do you?”
I cocked my head like a little dog when he hears his name and held that angled position for some time wondering– wondering why my temple hurt so bad.
“Bud, where did you learn that?”
“That’s a bad word. We don’t say that word.”
“Ok Dad I won’t say it.”
But I know he will. I can’t expect him to unlearn the word. I didn’t. You didn’t. The word is now forever buzzing about his brain, waiting for its chance to shoot out his mouth, accentuating simple thoughts, simple sentences constructed by a child who still can’t tie his shoes.
Fuck me these pajamas are tight!
The sun warmed the windows and my coffee cooled and I held Chase close feeling that weird mix of hilarity and sadness that is parenthood.
Hearing my son, with aggressive bedhead and tight Ninja Turtle pajamas, drop the “f” bomb was– funny. But I understand its significance. It’s gravity and weight. It’s a sad indication that the world has sunk its grimy fangs into him. And there is nothing I can do.
Look, my wife and I police our language around the kids. We save the four letter words for truck-stops and for the occasional blog post. But here’s the scary parental truth– we can only protect, shelter our children for so long. Sooner or later their little bodies will be at the mercy of the world. And yet, as parents we know that we must send our children off into that tumult — to learn, to discover, to get hurt. Like us, they will be damaged and they will return home gaunt-eyed and talking dirty. It’s just the price we all must pay.
So what do we do when our children learn the “f” word?
Cut out their tongues?
Of course not.
Reinforce that it’s a bad word? That’s what I did. And if he says it again I will correct him again.
But I can’t be naive. By identifying words as “bad” I’m only planting seeds of curiosity. Chase will surely lie in bed at night, further stretching out the Turtles, and wonder what other bad words loom out in the darkness, where the killer clowns and president-elects reside.
Things were quiet. With Chase’s head still on my shoulder I thought about how growing up, losing innocence, vilifying your vocabulary are as natural and normal as the rising sun.
“What do you call a skunk driving a helicopter?”
” A smell-a-copter.”
I smiled, tussled his bedhead again and felt the warm reassurance that I still have plenty more quiet mornings with my little boy.