“This flipping sucks,” my then seven-year-old daughter said.
I cringed, clamping my mouth shut because I knew, I KNEW, that if I opened it, my mother would come out. Up until that point, I’d planned every discussion I would have with my daughters over the Important Stuff. Sex, their unusual parentage, drugs, drinking, friendships and break-ups… I had an entire portfolio of scripts in my head, waiting for that trigger question.
I’d never thought of what I’d say when they started cursing.
I’m a novelist and avid reader, so words have always been my friends. I find new ones all the time that beg to be scrawled hastily in a notebook or scribbled on the back of my hand for maximum memory retention. I love words. But ‘sucks’ was the first to ever get me in trouble. Even now, as I form my lips around the word, it tastes like liquid Irish Spring soap and a bathroom sponge.
I grew up in a Catholic household where we didn’t say God’s name in vain or read books with four-letter words in them. My grandmother, no matter how frustrated or scared or angry she was, would exclaim, “Oh, sugar,” while my grandfather rolled his eyes in the other room. Words like sucks, crap, or anything in the dialogue of The Simpsons were off-limits up until I was fifteen.
Then my mother divorced, remarried, and had her sixth child. Though we’ve never talked about it (because fuck is such a staple to our conversations now it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t), I imagine my mother, as she stared into the eyes of yet another small person demanding of her time and energy, thinking: We’ve gone through a gallon of milk in two days, The Wizard of Oz is on loop in my nightmares, and I’m not really sure where the six-year-old is. Shit.
From that point on, there was no longer an embargo on “sucks” and “crap.” We were allowed to watch The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy without fear that we’d be scarred soul-deep. We still couldn’t say damn in her presence, but it was a start.
It was with all this in mind that I decided on my lesson regarding Bad Words: There are no bad words.
Say it with me: There are no bad words.
There are four letter words and hurtful words and grown-up words and appropriate words, but none of them are bad. Shit is a grown-up way of saying “poop.” Bitch is an angry word for “jerk who cut me off in the middle of rush-hour.” Twatwaffle is “just something Mommy likes to say because it sounds funny.”
I’m from the school of thought that believes the power of a word is determined by the intention behind it. Malice and disrespect aren’t found in the words themselves, but in the spirit with which they are delivered. I have the greatest fondness for someone who can tell me to go to Hell in such a way that I look forward to the trip.
Does that mean I let my now eight- and nine-year-olds curse?
The car is a “safe space” and, though it doesn’t happen often, we’ve used this space to vent our frustrations as a family. My partner and I scream colorful obscenities at the cars flying past at break-neck speed while our daughters giggle in the back seat at the delicate “damn it” that cautiously slips past their lips.
I see that hand hovering all Victorian at your chest. Put it back in your pocket and listen. My daughters say “damn it” in the neutral zone that is my car, but in doing so, I’ve taken the mystery and delicious sinfulness out of so-called bad words. On the playground when other children call each other assholes to get a laugh out of their friends and a shock out of eavesdropping moms, my daughters shrug and continue throwing each other down the slide.
Because they know the secret behind those words.
They’re just words.
As I’m writing this, my eight-year-old is at her first day of summer school and my nine-year-old is perched in front of the television, enjoying her little slice of alone time. She’s like me that way. In fact, she’s like me in a lot of ways. She has one friend she tolerates because the friend isn’t stupid. She loves to read and plans on writing books of her own once she can pin down an idea that doesn’t sound, in her words, “Like poop on paper.”
I paused at that last paragraph to ask her, “What’s your favorite word?”
She grinned mischievously and I thought I could see the flicker of something started with the letter F.
“Family,” she said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.