When my boys are in the car, I occasionally play songs that contain bad words. It’s not a running theme; I don’t buckle them in shouting, “Who wants to hear Death Certificate?” That’s for my drive home. But if a song comes on that drops a bomb from any of the Bad Letters, I’ll offer only a flash of reaction, feel some burned-in but slight impulse to leap into the backseat and shield my beautiful boys’ ears from both obscenity and, you know, the horrors of the world we’ve made. Then some other, broader impulse takes over and I think, “Wait, this isn’t really that big a deal, and also I should probably be driving.”
I’ve come to this conclusion for the following reasons:
- Radio edits are the actual worst. No one has ever heard the “son of a gun” version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and been happy about it. It’s stupid. Everyone knows it’s stupid. My grandmother knows it’s stupid. Charlie Daniels knows it’s stupid. Frankly I’m surprised Charlie Daniels put up with that; he seems the kind of guy to barge into the studio with a flaming torch and a Beam bottle shouting about his rights, but whatever, I don’t know what Charlie Daniels does with his spare time.
- Everyone, mostly my children, can tell what the edited words are. My 11-year-old, drawing on years of phonics education, can figure out what happens between the “f” and the “k,” despite the heroic efforts of whatever intern inserted 1/8th of a second of a blurry needle-scratch effect between. (My 4-year-old has probably figured it out, since he watched the Cubs/Mets series with me.) And frankly I’m unclear about the ethical differences between hearing a Real Bad Word and just the “s” and “t” sounds. Guys, (whispering) I’m pretty I sure I know what Kanye said.
- This morning my 4-year-old told me “patootie” was a bad word, because, in his weird little sponge-brain, it is totally a bad word. He can’t differentiate patootie from the words I say when I slip on that spot on the kitchen floor where I spilled olive oil three months ago, which is at least twice a day. Patootie is a bad word and the dryer is alive and his stuffed cat Meow gets hungry. Kids are weird. They don’t know they’re bad words until we instruct them, “Hey that’s a bad word! It is FORBIDDEN! So please begin using it with your fool friends on the bus.”
- I’m not sure about your Facebook feed, but mine spent most of the autumn of 2014 weighed down by parents posting videos of their kids singing “Uptown funk you up,” one of those perfectly innocuous little semi-danger phrases, totally cute, reasonably safe, mildly edgy, but something that paints the poster as someone of manageable levels of coolness.
- I know parents who freeze their kids at PG movies, and frankly that cuts out most of the good ones. You enjoy your Chipmunks, at least I can watch “Jurassic Park.”
- Look, parenting is a lot of work, and I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with bad words, because in addition to serving as primary male role model to two entirely separate humans I’ve apparently turned into the sort of indigestible twit who uses words like “bandwidth.” I have a lot to think about besides iTunes.
I do not come to this argument as some sort of anything-goes hippie; in fact I lived my adolescent life in fear of Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory sticker. It might as well have been a rusty 12-point lock on a giant metal door, a giant blinking neon sign in the mall’s Camelot Music, that door on the mountain in “The Hobbit” nobody could open until the moonlight glanced at it just right. Parental Advisory CDs were forbidden, and I was not in the business of exploring the forbidden. At one point I actually asked my mom to purchase me a cassette by Tone Loc, who you may remember as 1988’s hip-hop equivalent of a bag of Skittles (in one of his more memorable songs he purposely served his dog an aphrodisiac). Quite out of nowhere, the third song on the tape produced an MF bomb so severe that I literally took the unrewound tape to my science class the next day and sold it to some kid named Todd for $4. It hurt to lose $5 of my allowance in the deal, but it was worth it to purge the devil words from my tape rack.
In fact, it was my three-years-younger brother who even broached the subject of explicit music; one day he started asking Mom to purchase him Public Enemy CDs and “Original Gangster” and made me begin thinking, well, maybe this Motley Crue isn’t that big a deal after all? My brother has since invented himself the perfect job, saves his money militantly, moisturizes his skin and keeps the cleanest house in the family, so I’m not sure there was a lot of negative subconscious effect going on there. A few years ago I asked my father why he didn’t mind such things, why he let my brother come home from the mall with such filth and flarn. “Eh,” Dad shrugged, “He was a good kid.” (Spoiler alert: He was. Also spoiler alert: My dad listened mostly to Simon and Garfunkel and Barry Manilow and I don’t think had any idea what was really going on.)
My hope is I take the same approach; it’s not like I give the children carte blanche to indulge in whatever sonic vulgarity they please; there are Eels and Faith No More songs whose titles probably shouldn’t pop up at all, and I screen for content more than language. We’ve had talks about what happens when you use some words around some people in some situations, and what people think about you when you do. The 4-year-old is especially attuned to what his daycare calls either “potty words” or “body words,” I actually can’t tell which because he’s bad at enunciation. They discourage potty/body words pretty heavily, judging by the amount of scorn I receive at home when I tell him to put his butt in his chair. “We don’t say butt, we say bottom,” he tells me, grinning, secretly delighted that he got a chance to say butt. Words matter. But if there are a few scattered ones in a Kendrick track about how it’s kinda sorta important to like yourself, I think I speak for the entire family when I say, eh, they’re good kids.
They might actually be too good. My older son gets more uncomfortable at them than I do; he grew increasingly disappointed in me when I got a little bit of a roll involving puns about Uranus, which, in my defense, are the most perfect jokes ever. “Did you know Uranus is blue?” “Did you know Uranus is sideways?” “Were you aware Uranus is a gas giant?” Nothing. Disappointment. He actually rolled his eyes at me. My hope one day he’ll be mature enough to hear such jokes and appreciate them.
Epilogue: Just now, from the backseat, my 4-year-old: “Patootie bottom.”
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