Whenever my family had to go anywhere when I was growing up, the ten or so kids who lived at home had to pile into our car like a group of clowns. Whether it was an Oldsmobile Sedan or a Station Wagon, there was never enough room for all of us to have our seats. The oldest kids would squish in first and then us younger kids would pile on top of them. With this setup, seatbelts were not an option. We had to hold on and pray for the best.
Getting out of the car was just as much of an ordeal that would last five minutes. Bystanders would stare at us and watch the unloading of the clown car. One time, when I was five, the process of us all exiting the car was so long and tedious that my sister Bridget slammed the door in my face thinking that the car was empty. She turned around just in time to see my mouth and exaggerate, “oh shit” of surprise.
Bridget laughed at the sight of seeing a five-year-old cuss. For me, it was just a prelude to a life of gratuitous cursing, which kicked into high gear when I was 12. It was then that I felt empowered by every “fuck,” “shit,” and “ass” I said. It made me more mature. At some point, I came to be known as the friend who said so many curse words that it got obnoxious. It was my "thing" since my debilitatingly time-consuming low self-esteem precluded me from having any really interests. Every other word out of my mouth wasn’t safe for young ears. Within a few years, it was a compulsion. I didn’t feel cool saying it anymore; I just didn’t know how to stop.
The realization that I had to deal with a lot of my bad habits from my younger years was an unforeseen side effect of having kids. Smoking ended up being surprisingly easy to resolve. I got pregnant, had a bunch of morning sickness, and all of sudden the addiction I had been trying to tame for over a decade was gone. It was the cussing that had a more powerful hold on me.
I didn’t want to stop cussing because I thought the words were inherently wrong. I stuck to the non-degrading expressions, said in frustration after stubbing a toe or finding out that all the tea is gone, that were vague and aimed at no one in particular. I, also, wouldn’t mind if my kids said a "bad" word every now and again. What I was worried about, however, was the rest of the world. They cared, so I cared. Since my goal as a parent is to prevent my kids from being total pariahs in the public school system, I eventually complied and cleaned up my language.
It didn’t matter for the first year whether I cussed. The kids didn’t understand me anyway, so why should I try to stem it? I reasoned that I had already given up my two favorite things, sleeping and freedom, so I should be allowed to say whatever I wanted. It was once I heard the kids parroting words back to me that I needed to get a handle on the situation. Stray frustrated “fucks” and “shits” slipped, but I learned to mute these and just mouth the words. In a way, it ended up being an even better outlet for my frustration because I had to concentrate to do it.
There were times when I slipped up and said the words out loud. These were times I immediately regretted as the kids would latch onto them. They knew they were fun, but I did my best to stop them from repeating them.
“Shit,” I said as I dropped Darla’s shoe that I was about to put on her. It was not a necessary “shit,” because the situation wasn’t that fraught. It was just an old habit dying hard.
“Shit,” said Darla.
“I didn’t say that,” I said to Darla, sweating a little. “I said ‘sit.”
Gullible Darla believes me and I got a free pass on that one. Other times, I would suppress laughter as I pretended not to hear them (since kids cussing can be pretty damn adorable). Eventually, they would stop.
This tactic no longer works. My kids don’t believe they mishear things as much as they used to. Even when I try to downplay the severity of the word in the hopes that they will leave well enough alone, they still latch onto the words because they know they’re inherently powerful and awesome.
The most significant obstacle to keeping Darla’s world cuss-free is her ability to spell and read. Before kindergarten, Greg and I would spell out whatever we didn’t want her to understand. Suddenly, halfway through the school year, she was repeating back to us what we’d spelled. She was getting too smart for us. So, the spelling stopped, and mouthing curse words stopped. We made sure she wasn’t watching shows and movies rated above PG. We check to ensure she wasn’t sitting in the hallway when we started watching our shows at night, which we once caught her doing a couple of years back when the Jinx was on. We thought we’d keep her world insulated a little longer through these tactics.
There’s the general world, though, that we hadn’t accounted for. No one is editing the outside to make sure it’s filled with child-friendly content. That coupled with her position as an accelerated reader in her class has posed some unforeseen obstacles.
While walking through an art gallery recently, we passed a series by the artist Paul Mccarthy, which he had created in honor of the Women's March. It was a piece consisting of eight skateboard decks hanging on a brick wall. The first was neon yellow, the second was a shiny red, and the other six were lacquered wood; all had words written on them with a black sharpie. Greg took one look and ushered the family away. I was slower to respond and didn’t pick up on this cue. I took in the whole picture of the skateboards and then started working my way from left to right, reading the words on them. The first skateboard, the yellow one, had a drawing of a head and read "I Love Onley Me." I didn't notice that the hair was a penis, so I moved to the next one. It was the red one. At the top, it said “Dickhead” and “Dicknose.” Right underneath it was a crude drawing of Trump with a dick for a wig, a dick for a nose, and an asshole for a mouth. Beneath that read “asshole.” It took me one second to react, but that was a crucial second. The damage was done.
“What’s dickhead,” Darla said, looking up at me with wide eyes. I looked at her mouth with its lost top tooth. Such a young mouth uttering such a sophisticated vulgarity seemed both hilarious and like the worst catastrophe.
“It’s nothing,” I said, suppressing a horrified laugh. “It’s a nonsense word. I wouldn’t say it anymore.”
“Dickhead,” she said.
“Stop saying it,” I said. “Just seriously, don’t say that word ever again.
I grabbed her hand and led her into a darkened room full of priceless crystal sculptures by Mike Kelley, so I could panic about my kids knocking over rare art instead of the new word Darla learned.
I thought we were done with the topic until Greg received a major award from a podcast called Death Metal Dicks. In an attempt to get more reviews, the podcasts had said they would prize the best commenter with a handmade cow skull candle holder. Greg put his heart and soul into 250 words and won it. When the skull arrived in the mail, I knew exactly how the mom in A Christmas Story felt when the leg lamp came into her house: mortified and disgusted. The skull was cleanish, but the teeth on it were too reminiscent of the animal for me to feel comfortable with it. In the midst of my aversion, I didn’t notice that Greg left the stickers from the podcast on the counter until I heard Darla’s scratchy, six-year-old voice.
“I have three dicks,” she said proudly as she marched back into the room holding the three stickers.
“Oh no no no no,” I said, as I took the stickers out of her hand. “You can’t say that.”
“But why,” she asked all doe-eyed and innocent.
“Well you see, Darla,” Greg said, hoping to speak to her on a sophisticated level by getting into the etymology, “That’s a word that used to mean detective, but people don’t usually take it to mean it that way…” He trailed off as he realized how messy it was getting. “It’s just not a word you should say.”
“Why,” Darla asked, again.
“It could get you into a lot of trouble at school,” I said. “it’s a bad word.”
“Oh, ok,” Darla said still not entirely convinced.
“You really shouldn’t say it to any of your friends because, if their parents find out, then they won’t be happy,” I said, hoping to re-emphasize how much she shouldn’t say it without telling her what it means. I felt utterly ineffective; I grasped at straws. For some reason, this made sense to her.
“Ok,” she said definitively. “I won’t say that word to anyone.”
The next day, when I picked her up from school, she was proud that she had stayed true to her word.
“Mommy, I didn’t say dicks at school today,” Darla said with a smile.
“That’s fantastic,” I said. “Now, let’s just not say it at all.”
I was relieved that for the remainder of the walk home, she didn’t mention “dicks” once. I was effective in getting her to stop, but I felt dissatisfied with the way I did it. I resolved to read up on how to handle the next time a vulgarity comes up. I don’t think I’ll be able to read anything on the topic since I feel like the next cuss word is just around the corner, so I'm feeling a lot of anxiety around the topic. Maybe I should resolve to read about it tonight. Or, maybe I should just chill out and stand by my assertion that they're just words.