I know kids say some pretty awful stuff. They maybe don’t MEAN half the stuff they say, it’s just that they’ve heard some grown-up-y word and it feels good in their mouths, like verbal Jell-O. All the worst words feel the best. My little brother, who is now 18, once had a shirt when he was a little guy that had big exotic frogs all over it. He wore that shirt out like I wore out the Titanic soundtrack in ninth grade. He lovingly referred to it as his “frog shirt.” He would BEG to wear his “frog shirt.” Problem was, when he said this, it sounded like the f-word followed by the s-word. This was problematic for my dad, who was not Ozzie Osborn or Melissa Leo, the recent f-bombing Best Supporting Actress winner (whose real indecency was the dress she wore), but was and still is, the pastor of a Bible church.
As a fourteen-year-old, I thought Jeff’s “F@#*&$ S@#$*%” was hysterical. Jeff had this high-pitched voice with a nasal overtone. It was like Pee Wee Herman cheerfully tossing around little word grenades.
Last night I heard Drew drop a very mild word grenade. More like a word cigarette butt. We were throwing this little cheapo football back and forth in the back yard, me sitting on a lawn chair holding a barefoot Thing Two and Drew wearing loafers with no socks. (Just so you can picture how classy the whole scene was.) Our next-door neighbor let out his yapping fluffy dogs, dogs that seem to have a personal vendetta against my children. At that moment Drew was plucking the deformed football from the grass and I heard him mutter under his breath, “Stupid dogs.”
I had several choices here:
- Agree with him. They are stupid, stupid dogs. You were very insightful to make this observation. I commend you for your elevated level of perception. Please say it a little louder.
- Ignore him. He wasn’t saying it TO ME, as if asking for some sort of response. He was muttering to himself, like I do before my morning coffee. Should I intrude into such a personal conversation? Some would call that eavesdropping.
- Admit my own hypocrisy. I know mommy and daddy say those dogs are stupid dogs all the time, because they ARE stupid, stupid dogs; however I have higher and more wholesome standards for you, standards which both your father and I have no intention of aspiring to ourselves.
- Correct him casually. Act as though he had perhaps merely commented that it was raining when it really wasn’t raining only mildly drizzling — so silly! — and get on with our game. (This is the strategy I’ve actually heard recommended, to not act so offended by the word and avoid giving it “power” that your child can wield against you.)
- Correct him ominously. We don’t say words like stupid. Ever. (You stupid, stupid kid.)
I chose number four. I gave it only the slightest ominous undertone. And I did it quietly because if our neighbor didn’t hear Drew say his dogs were stupid, he would certainly hear me say, “WE DON’T CALL DOGS STUPID, DREW.”
But Drew sensed the innate power of Stupid.
Again, seven seconds later: “Stupid dogs.” He said it this time more like it was between the two of us, like now you and me, Mom, are in this together. I know how the world works, and in this world that you think I’m not a part of yet, these dogs are most definitely STUPID. You know it and I know it, and you know I know you know it.
“Drew,” I said more emphatically, “We don’t say stupid.”
A few minutes went by. I was beginning to think I had won. I tossed the ball to Drew, but he dropped it and fell down on his bottom. “Stupid,” he muttered to himself, picking himself up.
Hold the phone.
Stop the presses.
Back that up.
The calling of the dogs stupid, he might have gotten that from Gordon. But this had me written all over it. I call myself Stupid all time, mostly because I’m always hurting myself in some fool way. It’s almost like I’m actually trying to run into things — doors, pointed counter top corners, the backs of chairs — tripping over Drew and Madeline like I never realized that actual children live at this address, like it’s a shock one of them would be playing on the floor.
It felt like the whole month of March passed between the time Drew called himself stupid and the time I could breathe again.
And I’m ashamed to admit it: I let that Stupid slide. I felt so guilty to have deposited such a weapon of self-hatred into his arsenal and was crippled by the prospect of my own hypocrisy. Shock and guilt had speared my tongue to the roof of my mouth with a tiny shrimp fork. So what I inadvertently taught Drew was: it’s not OK to call dogs stupid, but it’s OK to call yourself stupid.
(Wow, that was stupid.)
Next time I would like my children to send a little announcement before they require major maturity and levelheadedness of my mothering. It would say, “Warning: I am about to present a profound teaching moment that you really don’t want to flub.”
That would be nice.
In the meantime I think I’ll eat some Jell-O.