Q My 5-year-old son innocently asked me the other day, “What does ‘f---’ mean?” My heart sank as I replied, “Where did you hear that word?” He explained that the neighborhood boys had been singing the latest Maroon 5 song. Do I say something to the parents of those boys? With children of all ages playing outside this summer, do I ask that parent to ask their children to not use language like that? Or do I keep my children inside because of what they might be exposed to?
A Don’t get angry, but when I read this question I laughed out loud. Not because you are upset, but because there is just something hysterical (and familiar) about the shock of the first curse word.
There is an infamous story about me, as a brand-new 3-year-old, sitting outside the library with my grandmother. Pointing to a gathering of ants on the ground, I proudly said, “Look at all those damn bees, Mom Mom!” Wisely, she knew to sidestep the curse word and simply said, “Meghan, those aren’t bees, those are ants.” Without missing a beat, I exclaimed, “Well, then, look at those damn ants.”
Nothing gives my grandmother more pleasure than retelling that story. Already a joyful person, she throws her head back and laughs. “Oh, Meghan, you were already something back then.”
I like to imagine that even at the birth of language, the cave men had their young children come back from a hunt repeating some choice words, and the parents would roll their eyes. As long as humans have been alive, children have been watching and listening — and imitating.
This is the deal. It’s one of the beautiful ways we grow up and mature.
Your 5-year-old isn’t quite the picture of wide-eyed innocence that a newly turned 3-year-old might be, but he is young. And he does have an idea that he is a saying something “bad,” because he came to you with the question of meaning. And, oh boy, is that awkward. I am very familiar with that horrific feeling. You feel as if your sweet little boy is gone or ruined or forever changed.
Not true, any of it.
Your little boy is still there; this is simply one of many parenting opportunities requiring you to be brave.
First things first, you go through a quick checklist for the neighborhood boys: Are they dangerous? Are they often mean-spirited? Do they bully? Are they poorly supervised? If any of these questions give you serious pause, you have the right to guard your son against them. Does that mean that your son won’t run into them in school/on the playground/at the local field? No, he probably will, and there won’t be much you can do about that. But you can control the environment a little on the home front.
But what if these are totally normal boys: sweet, mischievous and a little attracted to the taboo (just like all kids)? What can you do then?
In terms of controlling them, not much. Locking your child in your house to prevent him from hearing bad language is not a feasible option. Your son needs fresh air and neighborhood buddies. Will some bad language and habits get picked up? Yes. But have confidence in your impact as a parent. You have the power to address these issues.
As to how to handle this one word (the F-bomb), there is always an age-appropriate way to tell the truth. A simple, “It’s a bad word. Musicians, artists, poets, writers and many other people use it to express themselves. We don’t say it too often in our family.” And then I would shrug and leave it there.
See whether that’s good enough or whether he asks more questions about the word. Answer the questions as they come. Don’t overthink it, and don’t begin to lecture. As soon as we brand the F-bomb as the “worst word EVER,” we offer an invitation to the child to embrace it. Normal children are attracted to the forbidden, and if we pay attention to it, we give it a lot of power. Just like the ever-popular potty language, this will all fade away if we treat it with good sense and prudence.
If you are friends with the other mothers, it is perfectly okay to mention, “Whoa, have you guys heard that new Maroon 5 song? I know the boys are all singing it — sheesh!” Gauge their reactions and go from there. Maybe they don’t care, maybe they have no idea, maybe they will be glad to know that the boys are dropping the F-bomb and will want to put an end to it. Just broach it with an easy-breezy feel. Nothing gets a parent’s hackles up like being told how they should or shouldn’t speak to their children.
In any case, your child is becoming more and more open to the world as he gets older. Don’t fear this! Your influence is far-reaching and real. Even I, a cursing child who grew into a cursing adult, knew the boundaries (kind of). The people who took care of me placed the boundaries naturally;you can do it, too.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Aug. 12.