I got a text message from our babysitter, Sheena, while I was eating my microwave pizza for lunch at work Thursday. It said:
“Mia said the ‘s’ word …ha ha.”
Mia is 3, and she won’t be four for another few months. In most families, this would be a cause for concern. In my family, we call her a “late bloomer.”
This is where I suppose I’m obligated to bring up the story of my own dirty mouth, and how I myself burst into the world of adult language. It was back in North Dakota in 1976, and to hear my dad tell it, I’d quietly snuck up on him while he was hammering a nail into something. Probably something wooden. Anyway, as I drew nearer, he missed the hammer and hit his thumb, and that’s when he yelled out “you BASTARD!” as many of us do when crush our own digits with blunt metal objects. I’m not sure if Dad was talking to himself or the tool, really, but on that day, one of them was a bastard, and the two-year-old version of me thought that was hilarious.
“Bass Turd!” I sung out, triumphant, as if cars ran on bastard fuel and I’d just struck bastard in the backyard under the swingset. “Bass Turd! Bass Turd! Bass Turd!”
And on that day, the torch was passed. My dad was able to quiet any sort of profanity volcano that may have been bubbling up under the surface of my polyester boy-suit on that particular day, but this was a stopgap measure, and he knew it. Pandora’s Box was open, and it was only a matter of time. My folks valiantly tried to keep my mouth clean and succeeded up until about the 7th grade; after that, though, the Curse Fairy apparently stopped into my room one night while I was sleeping and swapped out my tongue with George Carlin’s.
It’s funny when you tell those stories about yourself, because in those stories, you’re just the innocent kid. Even if you get in trouble, you’re not in *actual* trouble, because everyone knows that your dirty little mouth is just the fault of your parents — you know, the ones right next to the little pottymouth, looking around red-faced saying exactly what every parent says the first time their kid shoots out a swear word: “I have NO IDEA where he got that from!”
But when you’re the parent, there’s a little more to it. It’s still hilarious, but you can’t admit it’s hilarious except to your close friends and family. Certainly you can’t admit it to her preschool teachers, you don’t brag about it in business meetings, and most importantly of all, under NO circumstances can you admit to your foul-mouthed offspring that it’s anything but a totally not-funny, not-to-be-repeated, better-not-ever-happen-again transgression against all mankind.
But first things first. I wanted clarification here. This is my daughter, my flesh and blood, a reflection on me. If she’s cursing, I’d like to know that she’s doing it well, appropriately, and such that it flows off the tongue the way a good swear word ought to. Also, I’d love it if her chosen language was a phrase that only her mother uses, making it possible for me to escape from the entire situation blameless.
So I texted Sheena back and ask for some context. She replies:
“She hit her leg and said ‘Ouch, shit that hurt!’ I asked her what she said — and she says ‘I don’t know.'”
The bad news: “Ouch, shit that hurt!” could very easily have been yelled by me or Christina, so I’ll at least have to share culpability. The good news: It wasn’t something native to me and me alone. If Mia had yelled out, “Jesus Christ, why does my goddamn back hurt so bad when I’m only 34?” or “That sonofabitch cop could’ve just given me a warning ticket,” then I would’ve been hung out to dry all by my lonesome. Like I was the first time Mia dropped a cuss word on us, about a year ago.
On this particular day, I was changing her diaper on the changing table. I was steadying her with one hand and ripping open a new pack of diaper wipes with the other. I ripped open the diaper wipes too hard, and the sterile solution inside the wipes sprayed all over both of us.
“Gawd DAMMIT!” Mia yelled. I just froze.
“What did you just say?” I asked her. As if it wasn’t clearly intelligible to anyone within a mile of that room. If Helen Keller was standing behind me, she’d have leaned in and signed “I BELIEVE SHE JUST SAID ‘GOD DAMNIT,’ SIR”.
“Gawd DAMMIT!” she yelled again. Because, well, I did just ask her to repeat it.
This is not an uncommon phrase, I know, but Mia’s pitch, intonation and overall delivery gave it away as 100% inspired by Daddy. So the blame was all mine, and I explained to her that it wasn’t something a kid should ever say, and that words like that were for Daddys to use when — well, when the dogs jump up on the table and eat the last piece of pizza, or when the Chiefs draft another stupid running back when they’re already loaded at running back and obviously need help on defense, or when the cop in the rearview mirror is stopping to turn around in the median and come back toward Daddy, and we’re not close enough to the house to hit the gas and make a run for it, plus your mom’s not even home to open the garage door for us.
And it worked, because her mouth has been clean ever since, until Thursday. But the world is the world, and I guess it creeps in no matter how hard you try to keep it out. At least we can laugh about cussing. In the battles against drugs, sex, rape, teen pregnancy, abduction, molestation, bad guys and all the other stuff I’m trying to protect her from, there are no funny do-overs to chuckle about. You just do or you don’t. You win or you lose. You protect them like the hero you’re trying like hell to be or you let them down like the failure you pray you’ll never have to stare back at in the mirror.
If you look a bit closer at her answer, Mia gave me a couple more glimpses into the future with her short response to Sheena. She’s already slippery enough to play dumb when she needs to: “Me? What did I say? I don’t know? What did I say when, exactly? I’m not altogether sure what you mean?” Just like both Mom and Dad in that regard. And on the plus side, she’s smart enough to realize she did wrong and try to wipe away the evidence ASAP. Perhaps she has a future in politics.
When I got home, I asked Mia if anything interesting happened today.
Did she get in trouble today?
Did she say anything she wasn’t supposed to say?
A thoughtful skyward glance, and a measured repsonse: “Hmmm….I don’t really remember.”
Yeah, sure you don’t. You little bastard.