Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The F-Word

by J J Cohen

So this summer we shipped our son away to the wilds of West Virginia for two weeks of camp. The house seems eerily empty without someone to pop out from behind the furniture to shoot elastics at us, or without the endless humor of sudden flatulence caused by his remote controlled fart machine.

Thank the gods for the internet. His camp has a website where daily pictures and a video are posted. Though he is not always featured, we glimpse his smiling mug enough to know how much he is enjoying swimming, hiking, camping, tennis, lacrosse, and so many other physical activities that I get tired just thinking about them. We can also send him emails. The camp prints these out and leaves them on his bunk for evening reading. He can reply on a special sheet of paper, scanned into PDF and made available for us to download the next day. Yesterday the following note arrived:
Dear Family,
Today I caught 4 fishes. One was almost a foot long! I had to pull for 5 minutes! Today, a few kids got yelled at for saying the f-word, and now I know it must be really bad. I used to think it was just a rude word you should never say, but now I know it's not. It was in the book Iron Angel, so please do something about that book, like throw it out, and you should punish me for reading it.
I'm deeply sorry,
His contriteness broke my heart. He'd done a pretty good job of punishing himself, I'd say. So I replied:
Thanks for your your letter. I don't want you to be so upset about reading a book with "the F-word" in it. It is, after all, just a word. What matters is how the word is used. I trust you to know the difference. So I think it is OK to read a book with the word in it. You are a very smart kid, and you know how to read a book without thinking that everything in a book is how the world should be. Right? I love you. -- Dad
Should I have been harsher? I don't know. I'm not always as in control of my own "potty mouth" as I probably should be, so it is hard to preach verbal sanitization with much conviction. I remember vividly a conversation I had with his preschool teacher when I picked him up after a field trip. Miss Joan told me, with an amused smile on her face, that he'd been assigned to ride along with a friend and his mom. As the mother opened the door to place his car seat inside, he stuck his head into the vehicle and declared happily "Holy shit, this is a big mini van!"

I knew immediately from whom he had learned that cheerful exclamation.


Eileen Joy said...

Um, should you have been harsher? Is that a rhetorical question? The answer is "no," as Alex is clearly already too hard on himself. Maybe you can buy him a special Thomas Bowlder figurine who could expurgate the "naughty bits" from Alex's books. Technically, this figurine doesn't exist, so you would have to commission its making.

Karl Steel said...

Is the F-word "family"?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I heard that there is a Bowdler doll, but he is missing his most exciting bits.

The F-word begins of course with F, but it ends in "uck." Yes, it is "firetruck."

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Keep the fish, throw back the word!

I imagine kids at camp cracking up while trading their self-disciplining emails to parents.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I definitely don't think you should have been harsher. You were right, after all: it's just a word. And most of us would likely admit, were we being completely honest, that it's one of our favorite words. My 72-year-old mother-in-law, for example, recently admitted that her great fondness for the film Knocked Up is based almost entirely on the way the characters use the f-word.

My own pop culture confession? After watching the film Juno, I told my wife that I want our daughter to talk just like Juno when she grows up, profanity and all. Yeah, she has to learn what words are okay to say to her teachers and such, but that's really about rhetorical situation, not language, right?

And if we need a more scholarly example, ask the following: do you find yourself wishing that Chaucer had learned to watch his potty mouth?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Nicola, although I want to buy into your attractive vision of camp shenanigans, what's sad about my son is his utter lack of guile. I know him well enough to recognize his characteristic earnestness in that note.

I blame myself (<--oh, look, that is where he learned to blame himself) because I am such a terrible liar. So bad, in fact, that I don't really attempt it any more: it's no use, I just can't pull it off. My only mendacity-related ability is to be able to say something truthful with such forthrightness that it seems like a lie. Anyway, what this comes down to is that my kids are both also terrible liars -- and so, because they can't win at that game, they stick with annoying earnestness like dad.


Mom on the other hand ...

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Oh, and Prof de Breeze: well put! Since you, like me, are a fan of Dr Seuss, I will confide that when my kids were preverbal, from time to time as I was reading The Lorax or Fox in Socks or Hop on Pop, I would change the rhymes a little bit. It is possible that some very bad words implanted themselves in their minds that way ...

Michael P. said...

We got the following letter from our 11 year-old who is at camp.

"Please write more interesting letters. Camp is awesome."

Well, he is clearly having a good time, but the first sentence has yet to be deciphered. Are our letters interesting and he wants more of them, or are our letters boring and he wants them to be more interesting? When he comes home in a few weeks I'll have to ask him. In the meantime, I just keep sending him letters, hoping that they are to his liking.

cymreig said...

When my son first on a proper long scout camp some distance away (aged around 10), i think that I spent more time thinking about him than I would have done when he was at home.

When he got back, I am afraid that we smelt him before we saw him - he had had an excellent time ... including seeing his best friend turn blue with exhaustion and taken off in an ambulance (great fun!)

Then there was the time I collected him and his sister from another scout camp - in a week of torrential monsoon-like rain - and they both slept solidly for the best part of two days. They had learnt all kinds of 'street' stuff - very useful as they got older!

Are you sure your son hasn't inherited your dry sense of humour?

For fear of embarrassing them I will sign off anonymously!

Erynn said...

I think you gave the perfect response. Some people place too much emphasis on the absolutes of propriety, regardless of situation. Learning when and where to use a particular word is a more subtle task, but a much more appropriate one for a person with any intelligence at all.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Not too harsh at all!

Eh -- I swear far too much, and am always happy when I seem to be able to switch it off (not so much while my nephew is kicking my ass at video games) in the right company. I'm much more concerned that kids learn to differentiate between groups of people and situations and moderate their language appropriately. Honestly, I'm almost less offended by kids swearing than I am by students who write me e-mails as if they were texting.

dtkline said...

You did it just right, Jeffrey, to my way of thinking because not only were you accepting and forgiving and *pedagogical* in the best sense, you also keep open and indeed further develop a mode of openness and *hospitality* between you and your son that will only serve you both as these discussions grow in depth and consequence through the years.

I ship my first born, Sam, off to college ferchrissakes in three weeks. _Dr. Spock's Baby and Childcare_ is great for facilitating independence in a child but utterly fails to instruct parents about being independent after 18 years! It's harder than I ever imagined and better too. ~sigh~