The unavoidance of new bad words – a parent’s perspective

I’m driving my younger son home and I ask him how his day went. He hesitates for a moment and tells me, “Why do they keep inventing more bad words, Daddy?”
Crap I know where this is going.

“What do you mean?” I ask him.

“You know,” he says, “the people who make up bad words. They keep coming up with new ones I’ve never heard of before.”

“So you heard a new one today at school?” He nods and says yes. Two kids were calling each other a name during recess and laughing about it. I know he doesn’t like saying bad words out loud, so I ask him to spell it out for me. He misspells it.

“That’s the name of a country in Africa,” I tell him. “But I know the word you’re talking about. It’s an old word that we shouldn’t be using anymore. It was used long ago to make people feel inferior and it was really bad.” I told him a little about the book on slavery I’d finished reading the week before.

“So it didn’t exist when you were young?” he asks me.

I told him it did. It’s the kind of discussion that catches me off-guard as a parent but I know I have to face these kinds of conversations whether I want to or not. As much as I want to protect my children from a world around them that is insulting, uncaring, rude, arrogant, stupid, shameful, discriminatory, racist, and sexist, there will be more and more times when I’m not around to shield them from any of it. My mother’s approach was one of avoidance: we never talked about kids swearing, doing drugs, drinking or having sex. None of that existed once I entered my home. She didn’t want to talk about it and neither did I. So when I have my son come up to me and tell me a swear word that’s new to him, I can’t fall back on my own experience to guide me on a proper response.

But despite this I’m glad he’s comfortable enough to talk to me about it, and however uncomfortable it is for me to answer him, I have to respond. As my children mature and learn more about the world around them, I realize they’re exposed to a lot more crap than I want them to be, but at the same time I need to realize that they are capable of making decisions about what to say or not say, how to be kind and respectful rather than mean-spirited, and how to speak up for what’s right. And talking to them about the stuff that was taboo when I was a kid is one way I hope will help.

“When the kids during recess were using that word, did you say anything to them?” I ask him.

He tells me no. “Maybe next time you hear that word you can tell them it’s not nice to say it. Like, ever.” He nods. I know he’s a good kid.

I drive down our street and pull into the driveway.

“There was another word I heard today, Daddy.”

Oh crap.

November 20 is Universal Children’s Day. This year UNICEF is focusing on putting hidden violence and abuse of children in the spotlight. Let’s talk about it end violence against children in all its forms.

This is not a top ten list on how to be a good father

I get annoyed with lists. Top ten tips for a greener household, top five exercises to get in shape, top twelve best foods, top ten things great fathers do. Come on. The top five, ten, or whatever the number of things that help you become a great father are worthless but I know they are ideal social media fodder and perfectly suitable to our era of convenience and quick fixes. The truth is, if someone were to ask me what makes a great father, I would just say, “Spend time with your kids.” End of story.

I was scared at the prospect of becoming a father. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it, and thought how weird it was that I spent much of my formative years learning about useless things like Pythagoras’ theorem, compound interest, the types of flora in the arctic and how to conjugate verbs in tenses I would never, ever use, yet no one ever told me how to be a good parent.

The second-hand smoke isn’t so nice, but thanks for being there.

I didn’t have a father long enough to learn from him. He passed away when I was three, so my memories of the two of us can be counted on one hand (well, two fingers). My mother regularly reminded me that she was both my my mother and father and always did what she thought was best. Through that I figured out, much later in life, that I should go ahead and try to be as much like her as possible. That meant being there for my kids.

Over the past twelve years I’ve done more kid things than I ever did in my childhood. I’ve drawn innumerable pictures of SpongeBob and Batman, and played with Lego, toys cars, and action figures. I didn’t think it possible to watch the entire series of The Suite Life on Deck and Wizards of Waverly Place but I have. I’ve played in sandboxes and swung on swings that strained to support my weight. I’ve played tag in the pool and whizzed around on a scooter. But I’ve also cleaned up plenty of barf and poop and pee, zipped up coats and tied shoelaces and tried in vain to convince my children to comb their hair. I’ve tried to feed them healthy foods but have given in to Kraft macaroni and cheese far too often. I’ve listened to them tell me stories they made up in their heads and adventures they lived on the playground.

I’ve tried to hug them as much as possible, I’ve said “It’ll be okay” after they’d fall and “Je t’aime” every night before going to sleep. I’d sit on the floor in the hallway waiting for them to fall asleep, trying to be as comfortable as possible and failing miserably because it hurt every time I would sit like that at the end of the day. I’ve screamed at them and felt horrible after. The louder I screamed the more I would think to myself, shamefully, My mother never spoke to me like that. I’ve said I’m sorry and hugged some more. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a wife who tells me I’m good when I’m good and lousy when I’m not.

I’m not perfect, but I’m there. I want to be there when my children need someone to talk to, I want to be there when they need a hug and won’t admit as much, I want to show them how to shave and how to badly tie a tie. I want to say to them, after each one asks me a few years from now to borrow the keys to the car, “Over my dead body” because that’s the answer I got growing up. The mundane moments of parenthood might not be very memorable, but taken as a whole they irrevocably strengthen a love that no child and no parent should live without. There are no top ten things you should do as a father, there are millions of things, starting with being there.

Do you suck as a parent?

I walked up to my wife sitting by the poolside. A few minutes before, we’d struck up a conversation with a pleasant man about my age with two sons. He’s been coming to Florida for several years now and spending time enjoying the theme parks. He was nowhere in sight when I showed up. My wife didn’t hesitate to warn me.
“When he comes back, don’t talk to him about religion,” she said. She knows I rarely miss the opportunity to raise the topic of any religion and poke holes at its belief system in relation to human rights. “I asked him if he went on any of the Harry Potter rides at Universal Studios and he says that it’s against his religion. Too much about sorcery and dark forces. He doesn’t let his kids have anything to do with Harry Potter.” 
I thought gleefully, He is NUTS! Prevent your kids from a worldwide phenomenon that has enthralled adults and children alike? I have to have a talk with this guy! “Don’t say anything to him about religion,” Carolyn repeated. Dammit, I’m on vacation and I can’t have any fun. I kept my mouth shut and went down the water slide.
The day before, waiting in line for the Cat in the Hat ride at the Universal Studios theme park, I heard a mother behind me admonish her young daughter. “I slapped you because you were mishbehaving.”
Last week as I was waiting for my son to finish his appointment at the dentist, I noticed four other parents in the waiting room with their children. All the parents had their noses in their smartphones, tapping away and ignoring their children.
I think each of these parents is doing something wrong, or at least not taking into consideration one of the foundational principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely the best interests of the child. Simply put, this means that all decisions affecting children have to be made in their best interests. For the smartphone-obsessed parents, they shouldn’t wonder why the hell their children don’t bother listening to them if they themselves have no interest in communicating. As for the slap-happy mom, she shouldn’t expect her child to act any differently towards her children when the time comes. It goes without saying that hitting a child will never, ever be in her best interests. And when it comes to the anti-Harry Potter dad, well he seemed like a nice man but if he’s concerned that Harry Potter will have a negative influence on his children, he should take a little more time reading the Bible, particularly the passages related to killing innocent people, denigrating women, and accepting slavery, to name but a few choice issues that are contrary to ensuring a person’s dignity.
Fine I’m not perfect either. I don’t think any parent is. My children fought today and I yelled at them. I hate myself for yelling – every time, without fail. When I do yell, I will be honest: it feels good at the time. It feels good because I am so mad that I have to find a way to let it out. But every time I realize that No, yelling wasn’t the answer. I’m learning to be a parent as much as my children are learning to be kids, and I don’t always appreciate how difficult that is. My children are changing, becoming more assertive, more independent, more willing to cherish their privacy. I sometimes feel as though I have less to say to them than before. But then again, it’s probably times like this when I need to search a bit deeper and reach out to them. At their ages, I was in a world of my own and becoming increasingly distant from my mother. It’s not a pattern I wish to repeat with my children. 
As my children finally fell asleep tonight, my wife gave me a weary “what are we doing wrong?” look. I looked at her and said, “I don’t know if this is a reason, but we haven’t hugged them as much since we’ve been on vacation.” She went to hug Boy 1, who in the end had a lot to say, and probably just needed a parent to listen for a change.