Last night, on the way to cheerleading practice, my daughter sort of shocked me. The will.i.am song "Scream & Shout" came on the radio, and while it's got a catchy little hook, some of the words are not so nice. Ella and Jon were in the backseat, and though I would normally change the station, I just let the song go. The tag to the chorus came up, and will.i.am and Britney sang, "You are now, now rocking with will.i.am and Britney, bitch."
Suddenly, Ella said, "I know that's a bad word."
I looked at her in the rearview mirror. "Which word?"
"When she says Britney bitch."
It was heartbreaking in a way, hearing that word come out of my daughter's mouth, my daughter, who is as smart as they come but is as innocent as they come, too. Even the way she said it sounded foreign, as if the word were never intended to issue from her mouth; like her tongue was fighting against the syllables with the ferocity of a Spartan.
I simply said, "Do you know what that word means?"
"No," she said. "I just know it's bad."
"Well," I continued, "originally, that word was what people called female dogs."
"Yep. But at some point, someone, probably a man, decided that it should be used to describe a woman. Usually it was said as a way to shame her, or make her feel like she was a bad person."
Ella looked at me in the rearview. "That's not very nice."
I nodded. "No it isn't. But that's pretty much the only context people use it anymore - to make a woman seem mean, or to make her feel bad."
She sighed and looked out the window. "Then why does Britney say it in the song?"
"I don't know, Ella. Maybe she thinks it's cool."
Her arms crossed and she spun her head to look at me. "Well it's not. It's mean and she shouldn't say it."
"I agree. Next time it comes on the radio, I'll just change the station."
Ella smiled. "That sounds like a good idea to me."
Childhood is getting shorter and shorter it seems, and as a parent, I've realized that I have to be prepared for anything to come up. With Ella, we've tackled bullying, good and bad friendships, how to handle strangers, and lots of other topics, but I kind of figured that George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" wouldn't be an issue for another couple of years. But then again, I should've known better because my wife used to teach a class of Kindergarteners and first graders who knew how to use the F-bomb in every conceivable way.
After talking it over with Ella last night, I took away a few things, and maybe they can work for you too:
Don't lose your mind. I know this is easier said than done, but try to keep in mind that, unless your kid is saying the word to provoke you, they might be genuinely unaware of what they're saying. With Ella, it was more of a dialog situation - she was informing me what she knew about language - and that made it easier for me to keep a level head. If I had snapped at her for simply using the word, regardless of context, then I would've killed the discussion before it could begin (not to mention future such discussions).
The right response for my kid. With Ella, the best approach I could've taken is the academic one. By boring her to death with the etymology of the word, I think it sapped the mystique. In fact, making any cuss word an academic exercise would probably go a long way to making the appeal of using them diminish. Nothing says "lame" like a seventeen minute lecture on the origin, contextual development and evolution of a dirty word.
The learning curve has accelerated. When I was a kid, we didn't hear words like that until middle school. For my parents, more like high school. The fact my second grader is having to deal with it is troubling, but that's the pace of life in the information age. Once upon a time we had to wait for someone older (like a sibling or a cousin or a kid in the neighborhood) to come home with the unedited album in order for us to hear the dirty words in songs. Now, you can simply Google the latest pop hit and not only hear it unedited, but maybe hear a remix or two that's twice as vulgar. It's the trade off for having instant knowledge at your fingertips. It also means that we as parents have to be ready to deal with this knowledge as it comes up.
For her part, Ella seemed okay after our talk. She didn't bring it up again after that, and I almost forgot about the incident until I heard Jonathan singing part of the song today (thankfully, he didn't sing the fateful line). We'll probably have a second or third round at some point in the future, but overall I felt like I handled things pretty well last night, and learned some valuable things for the future.
What about some of you other parents? How have you handled the language issue with your kids? What have you learned that might benefit some of us younger parents?
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