My daughter Bea came home from kindergarten and told me, “Michelle said a bad word at school today.”
“I bet that was a surprise,” I said. “Which one?”
“The ‘S’ word.”
“Ohhhh.” Subject matter we don’t want our kids learning in school. “Do you know what it means?” I asked.
My five year old flashed me an I-wasn’t-born-yesterday look, and said, “It means stupid.”
Okay, here I heaved a mental sigh of relief, and exercised my Superpower Poker Face to keep from laughing aloud. “Do the kids say any other bad words?”
Bea nodded and solemnly said, “The ‘H’ word.”
“Help me remember what that stands for.”
“Hate,” she told me.
I was a storyteller long before I had kids, and I understood the power of words. That didn’t prevent me from indulging in some colorful language, mostly offstage. But the moment my firstborn saw the light of day, I cleaned up my vocabulary. The toads and snakes falling from my lips didn’t suddenly become rubies and pearls. But just as a parent sees the world anew through her children’s eyes, I also began to hear the language through their innocent ears. I became aware of words loaded with negativity that seeped into the consciousness like toxins into groundwater. As with TV violence or antibiotics, it either takes more and more to shock you, or you develop immunity.
It was a shock the first time I heard my little innocents use the word ‘hate.’ I had to explain that some words aren’t naughty but are powerful, and should be saved for emergencies or they lose their power. Hate was one of those words. Stupid was another word used too often and too lightly. Words have the power to harm or to heal, and good words cost no more than bad. At our house, people were always encouraged to speak their minds, while using language constructively, not to hurt or humiliate.
As my kids grew older, I didn’t need to be as careful. If I slipped, they assured me, “Mom, it’s nothing we haven’t heard at school.” My twenty-one year old son Eli’s ‘S’ word is “Oh, snap!” But there are times when only the ‘Shit’ word will do. In writing, storytelling, and conversation, few words are verboten, so long as we are mindful of the language. Before I use one of those words I ask myself, “Is it necessary? Is it audience-appropriate? Is it authentic?”
Once when we were teenagers, our mother was driving us home in a snowstorm on a deserted street at midnight. She was followed several blocks to our house and then ticketed by a cop. Her crime, which she denied to her dying day, was not coming to a complete stop at an intersection. As the cop drove off, my soft-spoken, long-suffering mother muttered, “Bastard!” and stomped into the house. We kids sat in the car in shocked silence before my big sister Miriam finally said, “Guys, we really need to watch our language. I think Mom might be picking it up.”
Authentic? Oh, yes. True to character? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there, but I was and that’s how it happened. Would I use it? Sorry, Mom, but yeah. I just did.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Bruce Kittess of The Three Monkeys: http://www.thethreemonkeys.com/