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A few weeks ago during dinner, we taught our nine-year-old son, Ryan, the “f word.” Swearing at the table is not a normal part of our conversation. Neither my husband nor I curse a lot. Paul works in retail where cursing in front of customers is a definite no-no. For twelve years, I was an elementary school teacher and developed the habit of using “frickle frackle” or “shucks” instead of more common “f” and “s” words.
Ryan is an only child, and he observes and learns things from his classmates. One night, Ryan was fixing his blanket before bedtime, when he casually said, “Screw this.” My husband and I looked at each other in shock. It’s not a phrase either one of us ever uses, even when we don’t have kid ears to worry about.
“Where’d you hear that?” I tried to ask casually.
Ryan told me his friend at school says it a lot like while they’re playing and while they’re eating lunch. His friend’s mom works as a teacher’s assistant at the school, but somehow this child had adopted this phrase as his own, and Ryan tried it on us. I explained to him that it was rude and considered a bad word. Ryan apologized to us, saying, “I didn’t know.”
We assured Ryan that he wasn’t in trouble, because he truly didn’t know. This was his one freebie. Now he knows, and now we are expecting not to hear that phrase again.
“And Ryan, any time you hear something or see something you’re not sure about, you can ask us. You won’t be in trouble. You can always talk to us about anything,” I said as I kissed his cheek.
So Ryan took me up on my offer and asked.
“What’s the ‘f word’?”
“Why?” I tried stalling.
“I hear a lot of kids at school saying that someone said the ‘f word,’ and then they tell the yard supervisor. But I don’t know what the ‘f word’ is,” Ryan explained.
“What do you think it is?” I tried stalling again.
“I’ve heard kids say ‘freak,’ ” Ryan answered.
I looked across the table at my husband who deferred to me, the former teacher, to take control of the situation.
Carefully, I began to explain. “The ‘f word’ is kind of a weird word. It can be used in different ways. You know how in Apollo 13, we hear the astronauts say ‘damn.’ You can use the ‘f word’ like that. And you know how your friend says ‘screw this,’ some people use the ‘f word’ like that. They say ‘f– this.’ And other times, if you miss a shot when you’re playing basketball, you say ‘oh man.’ Some people say the ‘f word’ then.”
I looked across the table at my husband asking him silently, “Are we really going to do this?” Paul nodded yes.
“Okay, Ryan. If I teach you this word, then right now at this table is the only time we’re speaking this word. After this conversation, we’re not using the word in any way because it’s rude, and we’re not rude people. Also, you can’t just go to school tomorrow and tell your friends that your mom told you the ‘f word.’ They wouldn’t understand why I’m telling it to you. They wouldn’t understand that we’re having this whole conversation. Does that make sense?”
“Yes. I just want to know what it is because I’m curious, but I won’t say it,” Ryan answered.
I took a deep breath and then said, “The word is ‘fuck.’ It rhymes with ‘duck.’ And in fact, when I was a little girl, I had a hard time saying ‘fire truck’ so I used to say ‘fire fuck.’ ” Ryan laughed at that and then said okay. And we were done with our ‘f’ conversation.
A week later, Ryan noticed the ‘f word’ written on the wall of the library’s parking structure.
“Someone wrote the ‘f word’,” Ryan pointed out. “That’s terrible. It’s such a mean word.”
“You’re right,” I agreed.
I want Ryan to grow up knowing that our home, our family, are his safety zones. He can say or ask anything of us. He’ll hear the truth, and he’ll get the facts. Later, as Ryan gets older I’m sure the questions will change. Ryan may wonder about smoking, drinking, drugs, and sex.
He may hear things at school. He may be on the receiving end of peer pressure. And I want Ryan to see his dad and I as people he trusts to take his questions seriously and speak to him honestly.