Too Edgy

The following was written for the online newsletter of the Middle School my daughter attends. The principle asked for a “parent column” that would engage parents on relevant topics, but insisted that I decide what topics to write on. The first one about discipline was ok, but this one had to be vetted by the district Communications Director and was deemed “too edgy for the newsletter.” I thought it was quite tame.

This was what I had submitted as my Black History Month column – talk to your kids about the words they use. It matters.

“Mean Mom: Episode Two

I am the swearing mommy, I confess.

I have been managing my impulse to use profanity with mixed results since my daughter was born. Swearing while driving is especially challenging. It’s not like I have a long commute (I live 10 minutes from where I work), its just that those 10 minutes can take up to 30 minutes if there is “weather” or some hang up on Cedar Hill.

During camp car pool one day last summer I reacted badly to being cut off in the drop off line by a massive SUV who pulled in at an angle blocking two rows of cars. I said loudly and reflexively –‘What a *BLEEPING* cow!’ — only to hear a kid in the back say “Where? I don’t see a cow.”

A better person would have been embarrassed. A calmer person would have apologized for her temper. I however, said to this tween that cows often drive shiny Escalade’s when they live in the suburbs. It’s just that their windows are tinted because they are Very Important and don’t want anyone to see them.

Kids who visit our house are used to me always having baked goods handy and swearing occasionally. They must not mind because I’ve never heard about it from any parents. I would hate to be considered a bad influence on anyone except my own kid, who for the record, inherited her father’s restraint with swearing.

I overhear my daughter and her friends talking about swearing one day and a girl bragged “You should hear my Dad!” so I felt a little better. I know a lot of kids use profanity when there are no adults around. I also know that despite the rules and the heroic efforts of the school staff, there is some swearing in the halls when students change classes. Since I was dipping into their conversation anyway, I decided to ask them – ‘What is the worst swear word someone uses at your school?’

They looked at me and without hesitation said “The N-word”.

I hadn’t thought of using the N-word as swearing before but I understood their reasoning immediately. Not just a charged word, but profane and unforgivable. We had a short talk about when kids use it at school, and how some people think its okay for black people to call each other the N-word and some think it should not be used by anyone, ever.

It was a deep discussion trying to help them to tease out how the power and meaning of the word changed in different situations. I’m not sure they got my somewhat complicated explanation about cultural analysis and how it is possible to linguistically reclaim an epithet, but we did talk about why its important to know Why a word has power.

I don’t shy away from any discussion, especially the sticky ones around “-isms”, because I think that’s part of my job description as a parent. I also truly believe that knowledge is the path to understanding, tolerance, acceptance and inclusion. And I would be surprised if I am the only parent concerned with language used by students at school, on the street or at home. Middle School is a time when boundaries are tested and using “adult language” is an easy line to cross.

Obviously the common curse words don’t faze me, but a kid using B**** or racial and religious slurs, triggers an automatic lecture from me. Even if we are in public and even if it embarrasses my daughter. I would bet that we all have words we consider to be, not taboo exactly, but unacceptable for our children to use, but some words – fag, homo, lesbo, stupid, retard, ‘That’s so Gay’, fatty – aren’t always considered unacceptable. The impact of their use may not register as hurtful until your kid is on the receiving end.

Do you talk with your child about the N-word? About name-calling or cursing? How does it come up and what do you say? Where do you draw the line with word choice? Do you ever talk about these things with other parents? I am wondering if we shouldn’t be having conversations about this subject as a community.”