One morning, when the kids were 5 and 7, and I was standing at the chopping block cutting crusts off sandwiches, I heard our son say to his little sister, “Do you know the ‘D’ word?”
He and our daughter slurped cereal at the kitchen table a few feet behind me. I paused imperceptibly, remained facing forward, and wrestled gently with a plastic sandwich bag, taming it into quiet, unrustling submission. Where was he going with this? I tried to remain silent so I could hear our daughter’s response.
“D-U-M?” She said.
I relaxed, smiled to myself, and stuffed the bagged sandwiches into lunch boxes. I pulled the rinsed strawberries towards me from the far corner of the board and patted them dry.
“What about the ’S’ word?” he asked. I stiffened.
My shoulders softened. How precious that she was spelling the “bad words” out instead of saying them. I sliced berries and pretended I wasn’t listening.
Our son was quiet a moment, probably chewing his mini-wheats. I dared not look lest I give myself away. “What about the ‘H’ word?” he asked.
Oh my goodness, be still my heart. Did I teach them this, that “hate” is a bad word? If so, major mom kudos to me. I tucked the strawberries next to the sandwiches and smiled smugly to myself about my parenting skills. Our son asked, just as I was about to zip up a lunch box, “Do you know the ‘F’ word?” I busied myself with wiping the board instead of securing the noisy zipper.
“F-A-T?” our daughter asked.
I could feel our son smiling. I chuckled, too. “Nooooo…”
Wait. What could it be if not “fat” or “fart?” Well, obviously you and I know what it could be, but if the kids didn’t know the “D,” “S,” or “H” words, how on earth would they know the “F” word?
“I don’t know,” our daughter said. “What is it?”
“F-U-K,” our 7 year old son said.
Oh my God. He knows. He knows! How does he know this?!
Okay, act casual. I folded my cloth, picked up a lunch box, and took a deep breath.
“Hey baby,” I said, turning my body toward them at last, nonchalantly sealing the lunch box, not freaking out. Not correcting his spelling. “Where did you hear that word?” We don’t say that word around the kids. Maybe he heard it on the bus. There were fifth graders on the bus, and he was only in second grade. The big kids must have talked about it. That’s how he knew it was a bad word. Surely second graders weren’t talking about it. Surely.
His sister lost interest and cleaned up her bowl. He shrugged and said, “I dunno.”
This conversation could go anywhere. Why it’s a bad word, why kids shouldn’t say it, who is offended by it, why some people use it, whether their dad and I ever use it. How much do I say? I decided: as little as possible. “You know not to use that word, right?”
“I know,” he said, and slurped the last spoonful of cereal milk. “I don’t even know what it means.”
Well, that’s good. “Okay, if you have any questions, you can ask me. For now I’ll just tell you it’s a word that is very offensive to a lot of people, and children should not use it, especially since you don’t know what it means.”
“Okay Mom.” He got up and brought his bowl to the sink.
“Here’s your lunch box, buddy.” I kissed him on the top of his head, patted his back, and sent him off to brush his teeth. I collapsed in a kitchen chair and realized the baby years, which I’d thought were awfully trying, were hard in a physically demanding, bone exhausting, I’m-responsible-for-this-baby’s-every-need kind of way. But the elementary school years? Those are hard in a completely different way. They are demanding in an intellectual, emotional, I’m-responsible-for-helping-this-child-navigate-the-weirdness-of-life-and-become-a-decent-human-being kind of way.
With the kids’ births I thought, Now it begins. We navigated sleep deprivation and the endless repetition of diapering, feeding, clothing, cleaning. But after that morning’s dialogue – “Do you know the ‘F’ word?” – and facing the strain of trying to know the right thing to do, to react swiftly and intelligently, to be a responsible adult even when I thought the whole exchange was funny, I knew this stage of parenting was different than simply keeping our kids alive. As I’ve thought with countless turning points that came before (walking, talking) and will come after (puberty, rebelling), that morning after our “F-U-K” conversation, when I realized our kids would one day lose their innocence, I thought, Now this wild ride really begins.