Of Swearing, Shakespeare and Smackwagons

ShakespeareLast week, Colin suggested a family ban on cussing, including his own use of profanity.

Although I appreciate his attention to the matter, our ten year-old is more disposed to biting than swearing. I suspect the focus of his ban is probably more on me cleaning up my act. I don’t have the same kind of leverage in the biting arena. No one here’s presenting him with some bad example I can remove. I can only scold him for acting like a two year-old and try to keep snacks handy in case he’s really just hungry.

Of the two, his brother is certainly the more practiced in profanity. Until recently Jack might have thought he was keeping this from us. If he’d been really trying, he wouldn’t have left the tracks he did to the anonymous YouTube channel he created upon which he’d recently posted a video.

As I’ve mentioned, a popular thing with his crowd is recordings of people narrating the games they’re playing. Some of these ‘YouTubers’ have so many followers they draw advertisers. Jack dreams of being one such videographer. He saved up, ordered a camera attachment and software, and figured out how to install both.

… And then apparently posted his own masterpiece, which Mike tells me is generously laced with a certain expletive he may or may not have heard around here. I won’t be watching it. I like to maintain my façade of ignorance. Jack says we shouldn’t be alarmed, that he’s just playing a role his contemporaries find funny, and mimicking the material he’s been absorbing into his developing frontal lobe. And yes, all of this has happened under our careful supervision.

A book with translations of common slang in Buenos Aires, for those who want to swear in Spanish. At one point I must have thought this would be charming.
A book with translations of common slang in Buenos Aires, for those who want to swear in Spanish. At one point I must have thought this would be charming.

So our son has become another source of the material I once found objectionable enough to try to limit before I got too tired. Now we just place the computer in a high traffic area of the kitchen and tell ourselves that we’re keeping an eye out. In our defense, we’re in charge of a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the parenting manual, including an overwhelming amount of existing and emerging digital media, such as the 100 HOURS of video uploaded to YouTube EVERY MINUTE which is in no way monitored or regulated by any governing body I can figure.

We tried banning certain YouTube channels when we happened to notice they contained colorful material. At one point I blocked YouTube all together (using a handy instructional video I found on, ahem, YouTube). Then I noticed my kids were spending a lot of time at the homes of other people whom I suspect are under somewhat less supervision.

Any parent who can manage all of this without eventually giving up and retreating to a corner with a soft blankie and a flask, doesn’t otherwise have a life.

It’s not impossible to completely ban digital media. We could live in a cabin in the woods a la’ Mountain Family Robinson, wrestle bears and chop firewood. And then our kids would become charmingly helpless adults who can’t program the DVR, look up their bank balance online or buy a subway ticket from the vending machine.

When I was growing up, a family with teenage girls lived down the street. I don’t know if they were Amish or what, but they always wore dresses and they weren’t allowed to watch TV. They loved babysitting us, and would both do so at once. At first, my parents thought it was great – two sitters for the price of one. Their enthusiasm for this tandem arrangement was almost immediately tempered when they realized the girls didn’t actually supervise us. They would plunk themselves down and remain in front of our set – which got the three network channels and one public station – until my parents came home. We could paint ourselves blue and run naked and the girls wouldn’t notice.

If you make anything absolutely off limits, you automatically give it a shining aura of yumminess that it probably doesn’t deserve. Ask any sheltered girl who flunked out of college because she couldn’t handle the sudden unfettered access to boys and booze. Ask any would-be dieter who swore off skittles and Dr. Pepper for life. Sex, booze and junk food all have their own yumminess without us putting them on a pedestal. Ban them outright and they’re irresistible.

We can lock it all up, or we can live in reality – as a family with kids who are bombarded daily with images and audio that assaults everything we think of as wholesome and good. Maybe the best we can do as parents is try to limit exposure, set a good example and provide a little context.

Take the swearing thing. I know both kids want me to monitor my own language. When they were younger, I was more careful. I don’t know when I began channeling my inner sailor, but there’s something inherently satisfying about driving home a point with a good, solid F-bomb.

But it has to be used judiciously to retain potency. Furthermore, it shows a distinct lack of imagination to use the same word as adjective, noun or verb, over and over. Instead, I like a little alliteration when yelling at the car in front of me, or a colorful metaphor to describe an unpleasant encounter:

“Hey ‘Jerry-just-started-driving,’ why don’t you pick a lane, huh?”

or … “She stormed out of the meeting with about as much grace as a farting rhino.”

Shakespeare didn’t even have the F-bomb:

“Thou elusive, mark’d, abortive, rooting hog.” – Richard III

I like the idea of made-up language. It has the advantage of putting people off guard, making them think they’re just not in the profanity loop as it were:

“So I said ‘Lookit, you wanky slapwagon, that mac and cheese is supposed to be two for a buck,’ I wasn’t going to stand there and take all her cheebugga.”

When the boys were little, they learned all kinds of healthy behaviors at preschool. Back then, there were people in my house who would gasp when they heard someone say “shut up,” or “stupid.” This was a precious, tiny window when we also collectively thought Teletubbies were charming and Scooby Doo was scary.

Today, we set them loose on the world, hoping they mind their manners, knowing they’re likely developing an ability to more readily understand an episode of The Wire than their parents. In the end, all I feel we can ask is that they do so with the following in mind:

  • Profanity limits your audience. There may be other parents out there who are actually monitoring their child’s video intake, and you’ll miss those kids all together if you’re banned from their computer screen.
  • Some of the most admired and employable comics are funny without all the cussing. Look at Jack Black, and … well … Jack Black. I mean Nickelodeon and Disney hire the guy.
  • If you do become a famous YouTuber, with sponsors throwing money at you, someone’s going to have to explain this phenomenon to your grandparents. It will not be me.
  • Any girl worth bringing home is going to be more impressed by the proper use of the term “smackwagon” than she is by the F-bomb.

There. Settled. Moving on to the biting thing: I don’t think there’s room for negotiation. If an outright ban doesn’t work, I might be in the market for a Hannibal Lecter mask.

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    1. I\’m sure nothing would phase you, with your experience with boys. Still, when I make heavy use of the threat of turning him in to a higher power, I\’m not talking about God necessarily.