“Mum,” my seven-year-old son said to me one day as we were walking home from school. “I know what the s-word is.”
“What is it?”
I let that stand.
A little later that year, he said, “Mum, I know what the f-word is.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to say it out loud.”
“It’s ok, honey. You won’t get in trouble. We’re just talking about it.”
After a lot of hesitation, he spat it out. “Fucker.” To my eternal shame, I burst out laughing. He was just so earnest, bless him, and the incongruity of my little boy’s face and that word…. Well, this was not the response he was expecting, but he certainly didn’t like it. I apologized and went into recovery mode. Ever the grammarian, and patting myself on the back for being prepared to set things straight, I told him, “Actually, the f-word is ‘fuck.’ It’s an expletive. People use it when they’re angry. ‘Fucker’ is a noun. It’s the word you use if you call someone a bad name. You shouldn’t use it, though, otherwise you’ll end up in the principal’s office.”
The discovery of new obscenities is not for kids alone. When I was pregnant, I used the phrase “yummy mummy” in a conversation with a friend, and she was shocked. “I thought that was a pornographic term.” In my defense, it isn’t exclusively pornographic. It is a phrase used to describe the pregnant woman or mother who embraces her sexuality instead of dressing in moo-moos. However, it turns out that there is a whole world of internet porn that has to do with picking up bored mothers and filming sex with them. Who knew? MILF is the acronym for the less mellifluous term for “yummy mummy.” I will not be sharing that bit of information with my son.
Nor will I share my new-found definition of Superman. Every year on our street there is a party. The neighbourhood kids—by which I mean elementary school kids—are out there until 11, dancing the night away. Our first year in the neighbourhood, and I got schooled about the music kids like. Two of my sons have birthdays around the same time as the street party, and I make playlists for the kids’ parties. Raffi meets Talking Heads. The kids dancing away on our street knew the lyrics and dance moves to club music. I loved seeing them bouncing around, catching the glow sticks that the DJ was tossing out, laughing and in a musical world of their own. Clearly I needed to update things. I sheepishly asked the DJ for some of the song titles to put on the next playlist. One particularly popular song was called “Crank Dat,” and you can go on-line and listen to a 30-second excerpt. It’s quite catchy. It’s also pornographic.
I did not learn the meaning to the lyrics of the song until I played it a week later at my three-year-old son’s birthday party. I very proudly played my cooler than ever birthday playlist. I very smugly observed my sons and my nieces and nephews as they danced around to my latest creation. Then their 24-year-old uncle pulled me aside.
“Nathalie, you can’t put that song on a kids’ c.d. It’s really vulgar.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Steve, you can’t tell me you can’t tell me. You have to tell me.”
“Please, Steve. I need to know. You can’t tell me my babies are dancing to something awful and then clam up. What are we listening to?”
Again, in my defense, I did my research and looked up the lyrics on-line before putting the tune on the playlist. There are many versions of the song, and I read several different sets of lyrics, but to be honest, I didn’t have the first clue what I was reading. I thought “crank” was a dance move. It had “hoe” in it, but the line is “Crank dat, Soljaboy. Superman dat hoe.” Now, I know the meaning of “hoe,” and it’s offensive enough, but because I couldn’t make sense of the grammar of the sentence, I dismissed it. I honestly thought that in that context it could mean “Ho!” As in Snow White’s dwarves’ “Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It’s off to work we go.” Nope.
Superman is not just a proper noun. Superman is a transitive verb that means to ejaculate on a woman’s back, flip her over onto the bedsheet so that when she stands up the sheet sticks to her and she has a cape. Nice. The kids were singing and dancing to this tune, putting their arms in the air like a crowd of mini-supermen, and somewhere the grown-up hip-hop gods were laughing. I was horrified. Apparently an advanced degree in literature does not entitle you to simply dismiss as harmless a song whose lyrics you don’t understand.
Recently, another mother approached me and told me that she had a funny story to tell me. My now eight-year-old son had taught her son the f-word. He, in turn, had told another boy at school, who then told the teacher. The power of the f-word was such that this boy was so embarrassed and so frightened of getting into trouble that he refused to go back to school after lunch. He hid out at home for the rest of the day. My son had not only taught him the f-word, he had caused the poor child traumatic embarrassment.
I know how you feel, kiddo. I know just how you feel.
Learning new words is not something that happens to kids alone. Now I know what superman means, I studiously avoid thinking about the misogyny that is behind it, but I’m glad to know what I did not know before.
I pretty much feel the same way about my kids learning new and unpleasant words: I want them to know what it means, I just don’t want to hear them use it.