I could see it in her eyes right away. When I picked my 6-year-old daughter up from school, she looked upset. The drama had happened that morning, on the bus ride to school, and it took nearly half the walk home for me to pry it out of her. Apparently, she had used a bad word on the bus when talking to her friends, and a third grade boy had made it into a big deal, chanting “Ooooh, she said a bad word!” Even retelling the story, I could see the way my daughter squirmed, how humiliated this experience had made her feel. If there’s one thing I know about my daughter, it is that she is insanely sensitive and hates being told off (I mean, who doesn’t?!)
“What did you say?” I asked. “What was the bad word?”
Naturally, I prepared myself for an F-bomb, but she got very quiet and said, “Hell.”
Now, it’s no secret that I enjoy swearing, and I have no problem with allowing bad words to be spoken in our home. The rule is, we don’t swear outside of the house, and don’t use bad words around friends, relatives, or teachers. …But … hell? That was the bad word some a*shole third grader had lorded over my weepy first grader?
“Huh, so ‘hell’ is that bad?” I mused as we strolled down the block. Maybe it’s because I’m an athiest or the fact that I swear enough to have become immune to such a bland, commonplace word, but I honestly couldn’t believe it. So I probed further. “But … how did you say it? Like, give me the context.”
She shook her head, too ashamed to elaborate. I gave some examples. “Did you say, ‘How the hell are ya?!’ to one of your friends like an old-timey newspaper reporter? Or was it more like, ‘It’s hot as hell today!’ or something actually negative like, ‘Go to hell.’?'”
Again, she wouldn’t answer, but I know my daughter and, like most 6-year-olds, she would never tell someone to go to hell. It’s mean, which I get. What I don’t get is the actual bad words themselves. I mean, I can’t keep up with it! Swear words for kids include stuff like “shut up” and “jerk” — words I try to use in order to stop myself from saying actual bad words. Jerk sounds pretty PG, if you ask me. And it wasn’t until I was trying to cram one more towel in the “stupid” washing machine that I learned that was on the no-no list, too. Yes, “stupid” is a bad word. Even when you’re talking about a f*cking towel.
I understand that kids need to have limits, and raising them to be respectful, well-mannered, clean-mouthed young people is important and may lead to a better future. But I also think it’s way too easy to create a mountain out of a mole hill and make banal words seem like weapons. Especially when some suck-ass, lame word like “hell” makes my daughter the subject of a third grader’s ridicule, driving her to tears on the school bus. In fact, she was so upset about being heckled that she was still in tears when she got to school, too embarrassed to admit to her teachers what a horrible crime she had committed (even though they later reassured her that she was not in trouble).
Seeing how seriously my daughter took it, though, all I wanted was to make her feel better. It took a lot for her to admit what she’d done, and I was proud of her for that — not to mention pissed at the kid who’d totally blown it out of proportion. I did my best to explain to her that she’d done nothing wrong, and reminded her that there is a time and place for cursing. I told her the third grade boy was probably being a bit of a show off and that she should forget about it, but I could tell the humiliation was still eating away at her. So I took a different approach. A much more “me” approach.
“You know what?” I said with a shrug.
Finally, she smiled.