A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Parental Discretion Advised

“Oh, shit!” The young man by the coffee pot pulled back his hand from the errant blast of hot steam.  Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted me standing a few feet away… with a petite, blonde, wide-eyed little girl at my side.  In truth, Lizzy was far too focused on grabbing the free pepperoni pizza to pay any attention to grownup strangers, misbehaving coffeepots or, apparently, naughty words.  Nonetheless, the curly-haired college student immediately looked guilty.  “Oh… heck,” he self-edited, catching my eye and grinning sheepishly.
I appreciated this hapless, scalded guy’s slightly-too-late attempt at politeness – but in truth, I wasn’t seriously worried that his burnt-fingered scatological utterance would actually harm my kid.  Would other parents have been more offended?  Less?  As I wander through the maze of parenting, I find that I’m never quite sure where to draw the lines when it comes to buffering my children from Life.  Which aspects of human existence are Not Child Appropriate – and for what age of child, and in what context? 
There aren’t too many official rules as to what is ok for what age.  Thus, to some degree, we’re all winging it.  The rules that do exist often seem to be a contradictory hodge-podge in which some tidbits of common sense are mixed with peculiar oddments of Victorian prudery, paranoid over-generalization, prurient religious doctrine, and chasms of offhand neglect. 
There are so many aspects of human behavior that we don’t particularly want to encourage in our children: Violence.  Sex.  Profanity. Blackmail.  War.  Theft.  Drinking.  Smoking.  Bullying.  Flagrant nose-picking.  Fundamentally, I agree. I don’t want my twin seven-year-olds to take up any of these things as second-grade hobbies.  But the vehemence with which we hide or whitewash each of these behaviors (or fail to do so), and the clarity with which we explain (or fail to explain) why they are Not Okay Now or Not Okay Ever sometimes seem out of proportion with their deleterious effects.
The closest thing our country has to regularized norms may be the criteria by which movies are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.  I find these guidelines peculiarly – and sometimes laughably -- useless.  They only serve to highlight my sense that where I would place buffers around my offspring differs wildly from where others would place them. 
More specifically, I’d argue that our culture is surprisingly and even disturbingly lax with regard to what level of violence and psychological trauma we think kids can deal with, and yet pretty darned uptight about (non-violent and non-sexualized) naughty words and naked bodies.  As for sex – well, we’re both ludicrously uptight AND frustratingly lax about the messages we send there.
[Wait, wait… Nancy is going to take on the subjects of profanity, nudity, violence and sex all in one blog post? 
Um, no.  I tried, actually.  But it got too long, and goodness knows, I wouldn’t want to bore you with page after page about the moral ramifications of hanky-panky and visible naughty bits.  Thus, I’m saving sex and nudity for another day.  Still, some of you might want to stop reading here.  Actually, some of you might want to stop reading a few paragraphs back, with the opener.  It started, if you recall, with “shit”.  Right.]
Still with me?  Your call.  I warned you.
Given that my kids inhabit the real world, rather than some kind of 1950’s mirror-universe full of roller-skating towheads and happy Golden Retrievers (but without the Cold War, the Stepford Wives, segregation, or McCarthyism), I’m pretty sure my kids have heard the basic Anglo-Saxon set of four-letter words.  I’m pretty sure that for the most part, they haven’t heard them from their parents – although I’ve never really thought through why Jay and I have been so circumspect.
A few days ago, Molly reached a highpoint of jigsaw puzzle frustration.  “What the!” she exclaimed.  Then she stopped.  I glanced at her -- and realized that she hadn’t cut herself off for fear of harming my tender sensibilities; she was simply unaware that any additional word might traditionally be part of this expression. 
Mommy and Daddy say, “What the!” a fair bit, it seems.  How very quaint, no?  Still, I’m sure the kids know the Real McCoy: that is, the words that refer, with neat conciseness, to feces, genitalia, copulation, or some combination of the above.  I’m sure Molly and Lizzy have at least heard all the words that – while they might technically mean the same thing as “penis” or “vulva” or “fornicate” or “anus” or even “superlatively” or “junk” or “emphatically” -- are VERY BAD WORDS.  Why are they bad?  Because we say so, that’s why.
When I was a kid, I knew those words, too.  My parents didn’t use them (much) – although I clearly recall my mother wandering into the kitchen, where my dad and I were playing Scrabble, and saying, “Who put that on the board?”  My dad explained, with no trace of remorse, “It was worth thirty-nine points!”  (When he played Scrabble with his nine-year-old daughter, he played to win.)  I rode the school bus, I played in public parks, and I wasn’t deaf. I knew ‘em.   Still, I was a good, nerdy little child.  By about fourth or fifth grade, I was so entrenched in my Good Kid reputation that the following incident occurred.
We were all out on the playground playing some wholesome game – tag, perhaps – boys and girls together.  Someone let loose a mild epithet.  Someone else remarked – I’m not sure why – that they had never heard Nancy say a bad word.  Never!
Suddenly, with that Lord of the Flies creepiness that can overcome packs of kids, they were all on me.  “Have you ever said a bad word?” “Come on, say a curse-word.  Just one.”  “Say one curse.  Do it!”  They surrounded me like jackals.  In truth, I don’t think any of them meant to be threatening or mean.  I wasn’t usually picked on, and these were nice kids.  They were just fascinated, curious, and super-charged by their own semi-naughtiness.  They circled.  They cajoled.  They waited. 
I think that all they wanted was for me to meekly whisper “crap” or “shit” or maybe even “hell”.  But my usually mild, dorky, nine-year-old psyche completely and unexpectedly boiled over.  I was mad.  I was furious.  In short, I lost it.  I screamed.  At the top of my lungs.  And what I screamed was, “FUCK YOOOOOOU!” 
I didn’t regret it.  It felt fantastic.  It cowed the herd.  It earned some respect.  And, moreover, it didn’t set me off on a potty-mouthed life of ill-repute and crack-smoking.  I went right back to being a nerdy kid who didn’t swear and liked to hang out with the Math Club.  It was all about context. 
The Motion Picture Association of America has clear rules about swearing -- but context isn’t part of them.  “G rated films usually can have language beyond polite (i.e. "heck", "rats", "dang", "darn", and "fart"), but never with profanity. PG rated films may have mild profanity (i.e. "ass" and "shit"). PG-13 rated films may contain up to four "harsher sexually derived words". However, if a character in a film says a "harsher sexually derived word" five or more times, it is routine today for the film to receive an R rating.
Wait, so hearing the word “fuck” four times is categorically different from hearing it five times?  But… doesn’t it matter what is actually meant?  The abovementioned word has so many dictionary definitions that it boggles my mind.  Does the MPAA care whether it’s used to denote a sexual action, a viciously aggressive aspersion, a relatively high-scoring Scrabble word, a superlative infix (fan-fucking-tastic!) or a cheerful, “Fuck, yeah!”?
Nope.  Doesn’t matter.  “The King’s Speech” – a film about King George VI and his struggles to overcome a profound stutter – was given an R rating because in one scene the title character is urged by his unconventional speech therapist into demonstrating that he can swear without any difficulty at all.  Ok, maybe it’s not all that likely that 15-year-old European-history-aficionados flocked to this movie, but I’m pretty sure that, had they done so, it wouldn’t have done them any harm.
In thinking about why Jay and I have been so careful not to swear (much) in front of the kids, I realize that our goals have probably (subconsciously) been twofold.  First, we have simply been trying to teach the kids social etiquette, on par with, “grownups don’t think it’s funny when you say ‘train wreck’ and then show your friends the masticated contents of your mouth.”  Shouting “shit!” at a coffeepot does not actually hurt anyone, in any material or psychological way, any more than holding one’s crotch when one needs to pee hurts anyone (parents, you’re with me on this one, right?) -- but it simply isn’t polite. 
Secondly, and in my mind more importantly, we’ve been trying to protect the kids from the context of dirty words – specifically, the kind of uncontrolled anger that comes with swearwords shouted in rage.  Sure, words are just syllables.  But words have power – sometimes terrible power.  Words can inoculate the listener with fear.  With hatred.  With violence.
And thus we come to violence.
I’m against it. 
I’m pretty sure I come across as a wayward hippie parent in many of my other moral boundaries (stay tuned for “nudity”), but I’ve got a peculiarly conservative bent on this one, and I may actually be more prudish than the MPAA. Swearing is something my kids are probably going to do, eventually; violence, I hope, is not.  Violence, is something that my children – and everyone else’s children -- don’t ever need to learn how to do.  “Ok, kids, now that you’re 18, you’re probably old enough to start massacring people with chainsaws!” 
What age is the “right age” for exposing kids to bloodshed, war, zombie massacres, and other traumatic themes?  Well, it depends in part on the kids.  Mine, as I’ve noted previously (http://latitude.nancyfresco.com/2013/07/page-turner.html), are huge wimps – and that’s fine with me. 
Violence is part of the real world, of course, and it’s something kids need to learn about, but Molly and Lizzy seem to need to take things slowly.  I know from experience that they find the degree of loss and anguish in Finding Nemo and the Wizard of Oz to be about the limit of what they can handle. It was hard enough trying to explain exactly what the Bataan Death March was, when the twins learned (as part of a recent family history homework assignment) that their great-grandfather is a survivor of that atrocity.  I’m not about to let them see Gallipoli, Schindler’s List, or Full Metal Jacket. 
I don’t really blame my kids for being a bit freaked out by violence – or even just by anger and scary situations depicted in books and movies.  Kidnapping, poisoning, knife-fighting, and murder are Really Really Bad, and I’m pretty they’re illegal in most states (except for Texas, where they’re encouraged).  Nonetheless, they show up all over Disney, and then some.  An analysis of 24 G-rated Disney films released between 1937 and 2000 found 464 violent incidents and use of 564 weapons.
This isn’t to say I wouldn’t let my kids watch any or all of these movies (although some serious parental sedation might be required, were I expected to watch all 24 Disney films with them). While I don’t want them to emulate or enjoy real-life violence, I do want them to understand it.  And, in fact, part of me suspects that the reason they are so wimpy about Scary Stuff is not because they don’t understand it, but because they do.
One of the most memorable moments of last summer’s Star Wars Debacle came when Lizzy, lying awake long, long after bedtime, told me about what was (in her mind) the scariest part of the film: the destruction of Alderaan.  This startled me, because the planet is seen blowing up from afar, without a speck of blood and gore.  Despite Leia’s tortured anguish (“But Alderaan is peaceful!) the scene is pretty darned abstract for a little kid.  But, as Lizzy explained, “They [the other kids] act like it’s nothing, because you don’t see it -- but they shouldn’t do that; it’s not nothing!”
Ok, I did explain to my child that Darth Vader did not, in fact, cause millions of voices to cry out in terror and be suddenly silenced, what with him not being real and all.  I want Molly and Lizzy to be able to parse the differences between reality and fiction.  I want them to learn the truth.  But… a little at a time.  The true depths of human depravity are too much to process, in second grade. 
Really, I should give them credit.  They are starting to be able to discern when violence is not scary (in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, despite a thoroughly vicious and blood-soaked bunny) and when it is (“Mommy, war is a very, very bad idea, isn’t it?”) At the age of seven, the twins are starting to get pretty good at figuring out which activities can reasonably be mimicked, and which should be forever relegated to the world of grownups-only, or forever-off-limits or make-believe.  As I’ve noted, they are not swearing, and as far as I know they are not sharing their precocious knowledge of biology with their classmates.  Kids can be way more circumspect than we give them credit for.  And, amazingly, they can understand context.  Context!  Indeed, they seem to be able to understand it far better than the MPAA does.
We can block our kids from learning about the world.  Or, we can teach them about it a little at a time, always in context, always with the full depth of attached information (which I can’t help thinking of as “metadata”) about emotion, appropriateness, audience, civility, and kindness.  Yes, this is complicated.  Yes, it might take the full length of a childhood to learn.  Heck, it might take a lifetime.  Maybe, ultimately, that’s my point. 
I’m sure my kids know the real naughty words.  But they have never, ever tried to use them.  And to me, this is actually better than not knowing them at all.  Why?  Well, it shows that they understand context, and social rules, and expectations.  Ultimately, understanding these subtleties seems much more useful – and much more intelligent – than remaining ignorant of a few potent combinations of phonemes.
“Oh…heck” said the young guy with the coffee-burned fingers.  And in those two words alone, he did my kid a favor more complex than anything that the MPAA seems to be able to grasp.  First, he acknowledged and owned his previous utterance.  Second, he corrected it, thus demonstrating that inappropriateness warrants correction.  And, finally, through that correction -- and the warm smile that accompanied it -- he demonstrated that it’s important to be kind to others, and sensitive to their sensibilities. 
I couldn’t help smiling back at this well-meaning 20-year-old who was trying so hard (albeit a bit after-the-fact) to be part of the Adult Conspiracy that protects little people.  He was trying to be considerate and kind.  When it comes down to it, I can think of few things this world needs more than efforts in that direction. 

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