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My Baby Said “F@$%”

My 18-month-old said, “Fuck” — slowly, deliberately and remarkably clearly.

Of course, he was repeating what he had heard… from me. I had used it conversationally, perhaps as a verb. When he said it, my husband and I exclaimed, “Oh, fuck!”

That night, my son’s bedtime story was about a fox, a story that he heard for the next five nights in a row. Yes, I had to scramble to get a book about a fox. I am happy to say that now fox and “fuck” both refer to the fox in the book. Parenting crisis averted. High fives all around!

Even as my husband and I congratulated one another for our quick thinking, the fact remains that this may not be the last time he will hear the word – inside or outside our home. And, in time, he may not be conned that easily. How about when he is 3 and he hears an explicit song on my iPhone? How about when he is 6 and hears the word at the adjacent table in a restaurant? Or when he is 8 and hears a classmate use it? Or tomorrow, when I say the same exclamation without thinking?

My husband and I swear intentionally; our kid is just repeating what he hears. He may offend people unwittingly. He may influence kids around him. At a time when his ability to learn language amazes me every day (he hears four languages on a daily basis), it would be sad if he is judged for using one word he knows nothing about. And even though we didn’t go out of our way to teach him the word, it does reflect poorly on our home. Despite the ease with which we swear, my husband and I were shocked to hear our baby say the word. It just didn’t feel right.

It made me think of a moment a few years back, before our son was born. My husband and I went for an open-air jazz event in the city with another couple. We bummed a joint from a group next to us, and, as we passed the joint around, our friends refrained. They didn’t feel right, they said, doing something they would not let their hypothetical future child do. How would they explain their hypocrisy to a son or daughter?

At the time I thought, “What a stupid reason not to smoke a joint.” Here were two people worrying about how to justify their actions to an un-conceived child, when, as adults, they had finally earned the privilege of not having to explain themselves anymore. I think about that a lot now – especially since my son swore. Could I, without a sense of irony, tell him to not swear? Not to smoke pot? What can I say about underage (and by that I mean the little less unreasonable under-21) drinking, when I know that I spent my underage college years frequently getting drunk? Is it a double standard that we may not want our kids do many of the things we have done — or may still do, yet?

Some things are easy to figure out; we were young and we made mistakes. It was clearly a mistake the time I got so drunk that I passed out at a stranger’s party across town. (Thankfully, my friends were sober enough to haul me to the safe comfort of their apartment.) My friends tell this story at every reunion, and we all laugh. It is a shared memory. But when I think of my son in the same story, I hear an ambulance siren and see a chaotic emergency room. It is not a fun story anymore; it is my worst fear.

My husband who smoked throughout his young adulthood (and doesn’t any more), would like more than anything for our son never to see a cigarette in his life. The grotesque image on the pack that he ignored back in the day is a real fear, now, for himself and for our son.

Then there are things I don’t regret, but can’t encourage my son to do, like skipping high school classes, or bumming minor free stuff from a place of employment. While free of consequences, they were still mistakes, and we have grown out of making them. These are our mistakes, specific to our context and circumstances. I am sure my son will make his share of mistakes, too. Chances are, we will never know of them as, like us, he grows out of them in time. I can live with that.

My husband and I have made it out of our adolescence and youth with enough brain cells intact to be able to lead an ordinary life now. But it isn’t hypocritical of us to worry about or warn our child away from the very things we did. In youth, the line we walk is often very fine. If it hadn’t been for our parents warning us and scolding us, we may have very easily crossed over. Maybe it was my parents’ voice in my head that ensured I chose not to try drugs harder than marijuana.

And that’s all we can hope for our own son: to be that voice in his head. All we want is to keep him healthy, safe and happy, even as he experiments a little, transgresses a little, protests a little and, in the process, grows.

We will have to think back on what we have learned to give our son context, set limits, and talk through decisions — the meaning of the words, the effects of a drug, the consequences of both. This way of parenting sounds easy enough in my head; it probably isn’t. In the long run — when he is 2, or 5, or even 10, definitely later — we may not stop our son from using the words we use. I can only hope that he will do so with understanding.

But I think our friends from the jazz night were onto something. They understood what we are beginning to realize now — when we become parents, we are responsible for what our kids say and do because it is a direct reflection of how we behave and what we have taught them. We can’t change our past, but we may need to be mindful of our present. That may mean making changes in our own behaviour – or not. And if because of that if we become one big, happy family of potheads who swear, then… fuck, yeah!

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