Sam Davies deliberately told his young daughters about the f-word. Like, he said it with his mouth. To them. To children. On purpose. He thinks he might have effed up.
This morning on the way to school, I taught my daughters the f-word. I didn’t plan it or think it through; it just kind of happened. One minute we’re listening to Christmas music, the next I’m making a deliberate decision to say “fuck” to my daughters.
We weren’t listening to the most traditional Christmas standards. I, being the driver and the dictator of the stereo, had put on Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick’s One Christmas at a Time. There are no swears on the album, but there are some PG or even PG-13 tracks that I thought would go over my daughters’ heads. For example, in the opening track, “Uncle John,” the song’s narrator implores the listener to not invite Uncle John to Christmas because he’ll borrow Nana’s car and come back at 3:00 AM with a new girlfriend who has a “Hilter neck tattoo.” The girls think this song is hilarious because my brother’s name is John.
It wasn’t one of these tracks that did us in; it was the morose, but seemingly benign chorus of “Christmas is Interesting.” The lyrics:
Christmas is interesting
Like a knife in your heart
Christmas is interesting
How it tears you apart
Christmas is interesting
Like a stick in your eye
It’s so freaking interesting
That it might make you cry
I’d forgotten that the song was so dark, and while I contemplated skipping it I overheard my eight-year-old sib-splaining to the five-year-old: “He just said the f-word. Don’t ever say that f-word!”
I went back over the lyrics in my head. Did I miss something? Had I accidentally put on JoCo’s “First of May”1? No, I hadn’t, I was 100% sure the lyric said “freaking.” So I said to the girls, “The singer said ‘freaking,’ which is a word that people use sometimes when they don’t want to use the f-word, but still want to show that they’re frustrated.”
“Oh,” was the response from the backseat.
The few seconds of silence followed felt like an eternity. I thought about my elementary school days, when I thought the “f-word” was “fart.” I didn’t know there was a ruder, more vulgar f-word waiting for me on the horizon.
I also thought of George Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words2: “Nobody even tells you when you are a kid what the words are that you’re supposed to avoid.” How are you supposed to avoid using words when you don’t know what they are?
And, I was a little surprised that they didn’t know what the word was. They’ve said it before. I can remember when my oldest was three, she dropped her toy and said “Fuck!” in perfect context. We felt like the worst parents in the world and made efforts to temper our expletives in our home.
Even with consciously trying to not curse at home, I’m an imperfect parent, and on rare moments of extreme frustration, I have cursed around or even directly at my children. Most of the time, I can catch myself, but the words “Just put on your f-cking shoes” have left my mouth. I feel shame at this, and when I’ve made this error I’ve apologized sincerely. I can count on one hand the number of times it’s happened, but the kids have heard the word in context before.
So, after the interminable pause, I ask, “Do you know what the f-word is?” and my daughters say no.
So, without thinking about what the consequences might be, without consulting my wife, I tell them. I say “I’m going to say the f-word is so you know what it is, but it is an extremely rude word. If you say it at school you will get in trouble. If you say it any other time, any person who hears it will probably think you’re being very rude and disrespectful to them.” Then I say, “The f-word is fuck” and it feels vulgar coming out of my mouth. I feel like I’ve made a mistake.
My eight-year-old wants to “pinky promise” me that she’ll never use the word in her entire life. I tell her that that’s not necessary. She probably will use the word as she gets older, but it’s a word that even adults struggle to use without hurting people’s feelings. It’s a grown-up word and when she’s closer to being a grown-up, she can better decide what words to use to best express herself. For now, if she doesn’t want to risk hurting people’s feelings, she should use different words to express her frustration.
I’m pretty sure I made a mistake telling my daughters what the f-word is today. I didn’t think it through. There’s no reason it had to be today. There’s no reason I couldn’t have talked it over with my wife and come up with a plan and told them tomorrow or the next day or a year from now. I hope that erring on the side of knowledge over ignorance will come out OK in the end, but I’ll strive to be less impulsive about it. Words do have power and there are consequences for using them. As my daughters are still navigating how to communicate their feelings respectfully towards other humans, I hope I’ve taught them that there are some words they aren’t ready for yet.