I was filling my cereal bowl at the counter when the table conversation caught my ear. Middle Child’s voice spiked up above the clinking spoons and GoGurt slurps: “He’s the KING.”
Reflexively, I asked: “Who?”
Matter of fact reply: “The devil. He’s the King of Hell.” I didn’t even ask what led up to this.
Big Brother’s eyebrows shot up. He looked at me cautiously, waiting to see if I’d call her on it. You know. The Bad Word.
I didn’t flinch. Poured the milk. He took over: “You can say it because you mean the place.”
A faint smile crept across Middle Child’s face. She’s 6; her brother is 9. She said, “OR, I could say The King of–” and at this point she dropped her voice and expressively mouthed the word. The word! The glorious freedom to say a bad word right out loud in front of Mom!
I pointed out that there were other words for “hell.” “You could say ‘underworld,’” I suggested helpfully. This time it was my son’s face that cracked into a canary-eating grin. “Oh, so then I could say, ‘Get the underworld out of here!’”
They were just getting warmed up. “Shrek has bad words in it,” said the boy.
“That’s why it’s rated PG,” I said.
“But Toy Story 3 is rated PG and it doesn’t!”
“Well, it’s not a requirement.”
Middle Child pondered this for a minute. Then her face lit up with the delight of discovery: “You can also say ‘ass’ if you mean a donkey!”
In general, we don’t swear in front of the kids in our house. It wasn’t hard to train ourselves not to. We just realized early on that children are real-life Jabberjays, absorbing and repeating everything out of our mouths. (Proof that they are listening, they just don’t always care what you say.) But even when the occasional four-letter word gets past the gate, like they do, we don’t make a big deal of it. Theirs or ours. We don’t clamp our hands over their ears when a movie character lets fly with something a lot closer to the profanity red zone than “hell.” We remind them, lightly and without threat: Just because you hear someone else say it doesn’t mean you should.
If you don’t make the fruit forbidden, it doesn’t taste as sweet, right?
Well, sort of. As our breakfast exchange shows, naughty words are a lot like farts: they’re funny no matter what you do. Getting permission to use one in the right context is one of the first big loopholes of house rules in childhood. It’s a free pass! It’s like a Draw Four Wild Card in Uno!
And hell, who am I to take that away from them?