Keep reading til the end for an exciting announcement!
After I wrote my last newsletter, one of my favorite people emailed me and asked why I used the word “fuck” in my writing. They were concerned that kind of language could alienate readers [readers, I love you! Don’t feel alienated! And if you are turned off by a few swear words, maybe this post will make you feel better!)
After I got that email, I started realizing that my kids are around a fair amount of colorful language, and some of it has seeped into their vocabulary as well.
So, today I’m here to tell you why I think it’s no big deal – and maybe even good – that my kids are exposed to the rich contours of the English language.
Swearing is academic!
Rita Lester, one of my mentors and a professor of Religion at Nebraska Wesleyan University, shared her cardinal teaching rule with me early on – say “fuck” the first week, in every class, so the students give up their right to be shocked later on as the content gets difficult (note: we teach at a fairly progressive university – not sure this rule would translate to K-12 quite as well). Rita turned me onto the podcast “Very Bad Words,” which has a fascinating episode about swearing in foreign languages, and several episodes about Profanity and Parenting, including this episode about how religion and mothers shape the way we swear. I love it. Rita uses the ideas of swearing as a way to discuss what is scared and profane in our culture – what we can take in vain and what is off limits (read the Wikipedia page on Dutch profanity to see what I mean).
So if swearing is good enough for the hallowed halls of Old Main in Lincoln, Nebraska, how can we think about it in regards to our kids, and raising them politically?
(Did I mention that one time Jim got tired of waiting in line at Starbucks so decided to reverse out of the line, ran smack into another car, and said “ooooohhhhh fuck it” so poetically that our children now have a song that they sing in unison? It goes “Oh…Oh…Oh…Oh…Fucckkkkit!” We’ve tried to rewrite the song as “oh, oh, oh, oh…yellow bucket!” but it hasn’t stuck. Doesn’t have the same ring, I guess).
My name is Alexander Hamilton…
Anyway – I’ve been thinking about all of this because Cyrus has started to learn the words to the song Alexander Hamilton, and to ruminate on their meanings Which I learned when we were in line at a coffee shop and he asked “Mama, what’s a bastard?” followed by “what’s a whore…er?”
The song begins:
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
He’s got pretty much the whole song down. But it does mean he’s said “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” about ten thousand times in the past month.
As a family that loves the arts, what are my options? I can do a 90s style censoring of the song and re-write the lyrics or make him skip to the second verse. I can forbid him from singing it, designating those words as profane space and barring him singing it.** That would suck, because I’m proud of the difficult task he set himself to memorize and sing that entire song.
Or, I can (overenthusiastically) offer to work on the song with him, and then have rigorous side conversations about how language is bounded – saying bastard and whore in the song is not carte blanche for saying it in real life -and these words are particularly harmful because of the way that they label people because of how they were born and things that can’t control. We have had conversations about how that language is gendered, and renders harmful judgments about people’s lives.
I won’t say I have no misgivings about him learning this song – Hamilton’s mother dies a few verses later, his cousin commits suicide, and those are tough topics for a 7-year-old. I’ve adopted the strategy of explaining things as he asks – he’s opting into the content, and can walk away or choose whichever conversations to engage as he wants.
Not all who swear are terrible people
I like the strategy of strategically allowing my kiddos to swear because I don’t believe there is a hierarchy of language wherein some words are just “bad,” but I do want my kids to avoid engaging in language or practices that demean or oppress marginalized communities – both avoiding that language and those sentiments.
I think you can be a super nice racist. I know you can be a “gentleman” and a misogynist. Civility is a trap that is used to keep people in their place and police tone instead of actually dismantling power structures – so I’m not going to sweat my kid saying “hey Mom listen to how many words there are for poop! Crap, shit, dung, feces…” he’s going to ace the SATs one day. But I am going to call my kids in if they use racial slurs or display thinking that reflects racial superiority. And when they’re older, I want to have real conversations about the universe Hamilton creates, its majesty and its limitations on helping us confront our nation’s legacy of race – and I think I’m in a better position to do that if I haven’t closed off conversations because I’ve been policing their language.
Even as we critique civility, though, having a liberal policy about swearing can also be a way to teach about kindness and audience. There is a set of language that we all agree on – we use that in our biggest bubble. Then, there is language that might be a little racy or a little salty – we don’t use those words at school, or around grandparents, because we’re being kind, and different people have different ideas about language, sensibilities, and decorum. And we respect that.
In 2020, right before everything shut down, we went to a barbecue at a friend’s house. I was sitting on the stoop, very pregnant, watching my kids run around, and saw Alma approach a group of adults we didn’t know very well. As she talked to them, they began shooting me incredulous looks, until one of them came up and said “ummm I don’t know what to do because your daughter just keeps saying ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ to us over and over again.” It didn’t seem implausible, so I went over to check it out. In her 2-year-old lispy voice, Alma turned to me and said, “Mommy, these ladies won’t give me a foook and I want to eat my avocado!” I grabbed some silverware and my child’s hand, and we walked away.
Alright – I’ve refrained from writing about the absurd controversy over Critical Race Theory, but that time has come. So two weeks from now, I’m going to write a primer for how to talk to your kids about CRT and what you need to know to intervene in the debate with your school board/state legislature/racist Uncle Earl. Stay Tuned. If you have ideas, please share them with me so I can incorporate them!
What are we reading/watching/consuming?
My kids are all in on Bluey – and I think it’s the best kid’s show we’ve watched together so far. It’s Australian. It’s about a blue heeler family of dogs. It’s hysterically funny. Half of the episodes feel like they were written in our house. And it has a sibling team who have all manner of adventures together, but are never mean to each other. I particularly like the fact that the younger sibling (Bingo) is doing some things that the older sibling (Bluey) isn’t ready for yet – like Bluey still falls asleep with her parents, while Bingo decides to sleep on her own. It’s the only show that all of us have ever liked – highly recommended.
I’m reading the charming House in the Cerulean Seaby TJ Klune right now, and it’s lovely – whimsical and thought provoking at once. It’s a pleasure to read without being driven by suspense, which is a nice change of pace.
I’m loving Radiolab’s miniseries on the Vanishing of Harry Pace, a Black man who studied with WEB DuBois, founded the first Black record label, helped desegregate Chicago, and then vanished into obscurity.
And an exciting announcement!
I’m also reading lots of stuff about developmental editing because (drum roll) – I’m going to start a developmental editing business in August! I’ll tell you more about it in two newsletters when hopefully I’ll have a website and a pitch ready to share, but if you know anyone who could benefit from an editor, please send them my way. Unlike other editors who are pretty narrow in terms of style, I have experience working with folks on academic writing in the social science and humanities, creative non-fiction, and fiction – I am excited to tackle a wide range of products. Let me help you write something awesome and get it published!
** I’m not excited about when he moves on to the song “Aaron Burr, Sir…”
Up in it, lovin' it, yes I heard ya mother said “Come again?”
[LAFAYETTE & LAURENS]
Lock up ya daughters and horses, of course
It's hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets…
No more sex, pour me another brew, son!
Let's raise a couple more…
To the revolution!