Monday, July 22, 2013

on swearing in front of my five-year-old

I spent most of the first seventeen years of my life in one of the most cuss-less places on the planet -- a missionary community in the Amazon basin. I think I only ever once heard one of my friends curse, and that was in my defense -- calling a much bigger guy who'd mowed me over from behind in a soccer game an "asshole."

I myself never swore. I took great pride in this fact and, yes, I mean that in a bad way.

Actually, there was one lapse. My senior year I was out paddling in a dugout canoe around Lake Yarinacocha with my friend Seth, and I turned to him and said, "Seth, did you ever wonder what it would be like to just say every curse word you've ever heard of?" And then I proceeded to SCREAM out ever curse word I'd ever heard of. It took a surprisingly long time.

This, however, was more to amuse Seth than for my own catharsis, and I never felt much of an urge to repeat the Vulgarian tirade.

But even though I don't really do it myself, I won't freak out if you cuss around my five-year-old kid. Neither will I worry if he hears someone say the word "fuck" in a youtube video, or even if he himself tosses off an expletive in polite company.

I will have a conversation with him after the fact about the power of words and their appropriate usage, yes. But I learned a few things from my years of pretentious mouth-piety. Like, that language is not a good indicator of heart-condition, and that the power of words has almost everything to do with intent, and very little to do with content.

I love words. And I do think it's important to strive for clarity-of-meaning in speech, and to attempt to comport myself in such a way that other people are able to hear what I have to say. There is a difference, though, between an awareness of context, and a fixation on an unattainable standard of word-perfection.

The example I like to tell comes from the year 2001. I had just graduated from University in British Columbia, and was about to embark on a solo road trip in my aging diesel Jetta -- down the west coast to Los Angeles, and from there across the country over to North Carolina. Before I left Canada for what I thought could be forever, though, I decided to crash for a week on my friends' couch in a place affectionately dubbed "the Crack Shack" for its seedy decor, if not for the drug of choice (they generally favored weed).

While there I painted a mural on the wall and, on occasion, cleaned up a bit around the place to earn my keep.

One day my buddy Jesse came home and noticed that I had cleaned his room, and had washed, dried, and put away his big pile of dirty laundry. He looked at the room. He looked at me. He looked at the room.

"Josh," he said.

"Yeah?"

"You motherfucker," he went on, a big grin plastered all over his face.

Now, at the time, that word was still so far out of the ordinary for me that I immediately wanted to turtle down deep inside myself, sucking my thumb and muttering the name of Jesus as a talisman against evil. But just before I could, I had an epiphany:

When Jesse called me a "motherfucker," what he really meant was, "I love you."

This changed my perspective forever. Not that I was willing to start using that word, myself (it's an ugly, ugly word -- a word that takes two things that ought to be treasured, and makes them a dirty joke). Rather, I began to realize that my puritanical obsession with the words that came out of my (and everybody else's) mouth was keeping me from hearing what people were actually saying. Through my imagined (pretentious, stupid) righteousness, I was shutting myself off from the possibility of communication... one of God's greatest gifts, and perhaps one of the most essential aspects (as I see it) of God's identity. In the beginning was the Word, the Bible says. And then it says that the Word was Jesus, and that Jesus sometimes got angry, and let rip with some seriously harsh language.

I still get a bit uncomfortable with harsh language.

But I remember what it felt like to be terrified of it... of the horrors of contamination that awaited me if I was to cuss, or to spend too much time around those other, less sanctified people, who didn't monitor their own mouth-muscles quite as closely.

I don't want that for my own son.

So instead of treating curse words as sky-rending anathema, I choose to treat them as what they are -- just another part of the tapestry of life. A part that, like everything else, I'm responsible for mediating and explaining to my son in the best way I can.

I don't go out of my way to expose him to cursing, just as I don't go out of my way to expose him to the other harsh things in life. Life is harsh in many ways, though, so whenever that harshness comes to the forefront, I talk about it with him in a matter-of-fact way.

We talk about death, and about the fear of the unknown. We talk about war, murder, sexuality, drugs -- whatever. We acknowledge that these are difficult things, and that we don't have them all figured out.

I ostensibly lost my job as an art teacher at a private, Christian high school because, in the words of the superintendent, I was "dealing with philosophical and theological questions that are beyond the capacity of some of our students to handle."

I disagree. I think our students were and had been dealing with these questions their whole lives, and that they were tired of people telling them there were easy, simple answers that they could accept in order to forever be counted as one of the Good Guys. They were tired of people telling them that their behaviors were the way to get God to like them.

I think what I was doing was pulling an end-run around an adult preoccupation with maintaining an impossible standard of purity, and doing it with a little more epistemological humility than was deemed appropriate for an institution that was there to teach students a very specific set of answers to life's big questions.

The administration didn't know the half of it. 

When kids swore in my classroom, I didn't freak out. I didn't call down the Wroth of Gawd upon them, or send them to the principal's office, or try to make them feel guilty. Normally, I just said something about appropriate context, and then tried to address what I felt was the meat of what they were actually saying. They weren't raised in a missionary community in the Amazon, after all. They weren't raised to be afraid of words.

My son is five. 

Five is more than old enough to be thinking about all these things, and it is my intention as his father to give him the inheritance of a Spirit that is not one of Fear, but rather of Power, Love, and (sure, why not?) self-control.

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6 comments:

  1. Very insightful way of looking at it...great post

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    1. Very well said and it's a great message that I wish more Christians would appreciate! By the way, somewhere in the middle of this I thought to myself, "He clearly inherited some of his grandfather's intellectual abilities." He would be very proud. I happen to be your mother's cousin. Edith's youngest daughter.

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  2. Your commentary fits fairly well with a book my sister sent me: Grace Based Parenting. While my husband and I don't use it as a reference, we enjoyed reading it, in that "hey, someone wrote a book that just about matches up with our standards and expectations" kind of way. St. John Chrysostom "on the education of children" also would probably be a pleasantly agreement-filled read for you. What I like about all three approaches (yours, the book and St. John) is that they all involve taking a deep breath and appreciating that the hard way, full of explanations, high expectations, forgiveness and humility is really the only way to go.

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