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I sat in the dark, nearly silent movie theater watching Arrival with my 7- and 11-year-old sons. When the crew first encounters aliens, one character drops the F-word. I leaned over and whispered in Owen’s ear.

If you are surprised by aliens, I guess you can use that word.

I’m not much of a swearer, despite my behavior when I was in grades 5 through 10. But there are occasions when even the most articulate mom can only think to curse.

I got my mouth washed out with soap more than once as a kid — for much lesser offenses, like calling my sister a butthead. (In my defense, that was the kindest word for her behavior at the time.) As a parent I don’t want to have foul-mouthed sons. I live near a military base and am inundated with expletives nearly everywhere I go. I don’t need it at home.

But there are times when a well-placed bit of profanity is appropriate. And explaining that concept to my boys is a parenting moment I never would have anticipated.

So little of life is yes or no, black and white. What I find myself discussing with my sons, time and again, is much harder, and more nuanced, than just telling them not to do something. Behaviors are seldom right or wrong — the line between the two frequently depends on the time and place.

Running around and yelling? No good for school but entirely acceptable out in the desert. Using powerful drugs? Not a sound recreational choice but sometimes medically necessary. The same goes for sex and nudity, money and junk food.

You can’t explain things like this to a toddler. Or at least, you shouldn’t try unless you want to spend 10 hours being peppered with excruciating questions on the topic. By the time my boys were in preschool, though, I found myself unwilling to give many hard and fast ultimatums, or unequivocal yes or no answers. Life is nuanced, and even a five-year-old can understand that it’s okay to wear no pants in some circumstances, but not others.

Being honest with my sons has meant a lot of different things to me. I express much more fallibility to them than I would have guessed. I ask them to clean up Legos, only to change my mind when I hear about the large-scale project underway. I apologize, frequently, for being irrational or contradictory — my brain seems to melt as the sun goes down.

I also frequently acknowledge the complexity of life. Alexander Hamilton has proven helpful in this area. There’s no way to avoid talking about his complex character during the hundreds of times we listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. The man did great things, such as produce the Federalist Papers that basically lay out our system of government. He was a complete jerk in many other ways, cheating on his wife and goading Aaron Burr and others into annoyance. I don’t want to take away from the boys’ enjoyment of the music, but the mom in me can’t let these contradictions go without commenting when an appropriate teachable moment presents itself.

A nuanced approach to parenting is a lot more complicated, and challenging, than one where I would simply proclaim everything as clearly good or bad, or definitively right or wrong. I worry I’m complicating things for my sons, and giving them too much information. They are thinkers, analyzers, questioners — all qualities I share, and sometimes wish I could stifle in all of our busy minds. I universally avoid the word hero, because no one but Superman can live up to the hype. But for everyone else, and for every other situation, I can only try to be honest about what I know and don’t know. That isn’t admitting weakness; it’s acknowledging the intricacies of existence.

Eliana Osborn is a mother of two, wife to one. She tweets @Eliana0Eliana

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