“I am trying to play with this, but these fucking babies are in my way!” Serafina said, like it was no big deal, while we were all sitting in the living room on Saturday morning.
When your not-yet-3-year-old drops an F bomb like a seasoned pro, you feel a complicated mix of pride and anxiety. You want to laugh, because it’s funny. You want to respond, but you aren’t sure what the right course is. And you scramble to mentally review all of the times you recently cursed in her presence.
“I can’t get this fucking thing open! I need some scissors!” she declared the next day, like a surly old sailor, while wrestling with the plastic packaging on a new toy.
When your toddler starts regularly inserting “fucking” into her sentences for emphasis, you swell with pride over her nuanced grasp of language, even as shame creeps up from your gut to form a lump in your throat. You shudder to think of all the other things you’ve said in her presence that she silently absorbed and will later, consciously or not, reflect back to you. And you agree with her, that packaging is fucking annoying.
So, Serafina’s been using the word fuck a bit. It started a couple weeks ago with a “fucking god!” when the babies were howling during baby witching hour. Darry and I were doing our circus act to keep everyone calm while also cooking and plating dinner. Serafina offered her “fucking god!” as commentary on the chaos.
She smirked while she said it, like she knew she was trying out something new and possibly dangerous. We didn’t offer any feedback and Darry and I agreed later it would be better to not respond if it happened again.
A few days later, it happened again. She yelled “fuck’s sake!” during another perfectly normal and hysterical moment. We ignored it again and she must have liked the way it felt coming out, because she just kept saying it, in a sing-song kind of way. “Fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake!”
Since then there have been a few more rounds of “fucking god” and “fuck’s sake” — impressively, always applied correctly to a situation. This feels like a sophisticated handle on slang to me. But each incident has, of course, given us pause and prompted us to review how frequently our own language is sprinkled with swear words.
Initially I got all the blame for this. I come from a loud, distinctly not-anglo family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins screaming “shit” and “fuck” and everything else without reserve. Literally screaming, as part of normal conversation. Darry’s family has the pretense of more politeness.
Italian-Americans need these words and phrases to communicate the intensity of their experience every day, so I grew up hearing it all. I was also disciplined with an authoritarian hand and only repeated those words quietly, or when no adults were around. And now I struggle to shake off the verbal vestiges of where I am from. Phrases like “shut the fuck up” just pop into my head as normal speak, because I heard them so often in my young life.
I struggle with this one a lot. It is one of my working class badges. And it pains me to think I already transferred that directly to my kid. But when Serafina dropped the “fuck’s sake” — a Darryism. not mine — there was no denying we were both guilty.
Ahh, the guilt. And the shame. I am not so concerned about the “danger” of foul language. I have watched parents scold other adults when they swear in front of their children, I have seen them suppress and sensor their own vocabularies in ways that have felt arbitrary and artificial. I have seen them punish their kids harshly if they swear. Why scrub foul words but not necessarily foul sentiments?
I feel like we can safely and more effectively — even now, just days before her third birthday — start talking to Serafina about what it means to use words like this and how it might impact other people to hear them coming from her, or us. I also feel like we can just be more conscious because thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character.
But this is easier said then done. We operate with frayed nerves, minimal sleep and an extremely high and persistent set of demands at all times. There will be “fucks.” I am more worried about other, more potent and less visible ways I am modeling to my children, my little sponges. I long for more time, patience and space to be careful. I don’t know how or if it will ever come.
Last night, I demonstrated a moment of restraint with technology while setting up the iPad for Serafina’s daily Daniel Tiger episode. The wifi was out and the PBS app wasn’t loading. I didn’t have to curse about it. I just had to focus on getting through the moment.
Serafina watched me hold my breath and try to resolve the issue, so I could race off to finish dinner prep. “Fucking god, mama!” she said. “Fucking god.”