Daddy Talk: Stupid Words
Here’s the report from the babysitter last week: “I’m trying to put the baby in bed, but the two boys keep running around the house yelling, ‘Butt,’ and ‘Stupid.’ I’ve told them that we don’t say those words, but then they run to the other end of the house to say them there.”
It’s not just the babysitter. The week prior to this incident, one of the boys was sent home with a warning note in which his teacher explained that he was using “bathroom language” in the hallway in order to get a rise out of his classmates. So the need for using proper language has now turned up with multiple authority figures outside of our family.
Hopefully, it goes without saying that Ashley and I have also had sporadic conversations with our boys about the kind of language that is appropriate. I realize that the two words in question with the babysitter are not the most offensive syllables that kids have ever exclaimed, but they are still words that Ashley and I do not model around the house. And they’re not the sort of words that we are pleased with hearing from the mouths of a first-grader and preschooler. But even with all this, it seems that the boys have reached the phase of pushing the boundaries of “grown-up vocabulary.”
As a result, Ashley and I have found ourselves having conversations recently about how to punish inappropriate language use and, really, what constitutes inappropriate language. I guess the two extreme positions here would be that on one hand,we could create a list, either written down or in our heads, of “banned words.” We could clearly state that these words are off limits and hold the boys accountable through a swift punishment whenever one of the words is uttered. The other option, of course, would basically allow for anything to be said, short of “cuss words” or mean things directed at others, as long as the context is one that would make that word appropriate. Under these terms, the boys would be able to say “butt” and “stupid” as long as they aren’t being mean.
Personally, I find both of these viewpoints distasteful, and my wife thinks that is partly because I really like thinking about words and believe that some situations call for stronger words than others. Plus, I sometimes tend to overvalue the choice of words that people use because I know that we can use them to mean strikingly specific ideas, all with different shades of feelings and connotations.
I can imagine a time and place where my child’s describing something as “stupid” would make perfect sense and would not be offensive or disrespectful to anyone, so I hesitate to want to come down too hard on a child who says that word senselessly. But at what age would you expect a child to understand fully the appropriate context for choosing a “stronger” word? At what point would his usage of the word become a punishable offense because he should have understood that the context was inappropriate?
I’m pretty good at talking myself in circles around an issue and, consequently, never making a firm step in a specific direction. The babysitter’s stance on the situation was pretty helpful in this case: “They’re only saying it because they know they’re not supposed to be.” And she’s right about that. Regardless of what the word was or what the context was, they have been talked to several times about not doing this action, and they were deliberately doing it anyway, so on those terms, we’ve begun to punish this behavior.
Even after justifying our decision to punish the boys’ use of “strong words,” I feel like it’s strange to not allow certain words in one’s vocabulary. Maybe it’s just one issue that I never took the time to think through before this point in parenting. Maybe it’s because I know full well that I’ve said things a lot worse than “butt” and “stupid” and don’t feel any shame about that. But I do think that the most important part of this conversation is that we are continuing to have the conversation. Certainly, using respectful language toward others is always important, following the reasonable guidelines that your authorities have set out is always important, and it’s important that we keep hearing the sorts of things we find our kids saying and trying to understand why they’re saying them.
Tim Krason uses choice words at his home in Clinton. He has a wife and three children and keeps a day job as an English teacher.