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The struggle to edit a child's vocabulary

| Saturday, June 19, 2004

Just when I'd weeded out one S word, another S word shows up.

I've been spending a lot of time lately editing my children's speech. You put your 9-year-old onto a school bus with 11-year-olds, and soon you notice certain words popping up at the dinner table. There's an almost refreshing innocence in the way certain blunt words for, say, bodily functions spill forth from these soft, open faces. Another mother might say ignore it, they're just trying to taunt you. But I suspect my children like the words simply for their crispy pop, and the deployment of them has nothing to do with me. Some words just feel good on the tongue -- forbidden and exotic -- and the only wise parental response is to react and, if possible, protect.

This is well nigh impossible. I am wading in the mucky pond of negative cultural influence. I can limit and monitor my kids' television viewing, deny virtually all access to the Internet, and keep them out of PG-13 movies, and it's still not enough.

For the movie trailer currently running during some children's television, the makers of "Shrek 2" chose a clip in which the donkey says, "I drank a potion and now I'm sexy!" My 4-year-old daughter said this line, with accurate inflection, at least 82 times last week before I was finally able to turn off the switch to her mouth. She hit the S word hard, sometimes repeating it five and six times. She hasn't a clue what sexy means, nor what a potion is for that matter. But there's something a little off about hearing a preschooler saying such a thing. When she asked what sexy meant and why she should stop saying it, I didn't know where to begin.

Ah, for a return to the days when my son thought the other S word, stupid, was a swear word. We weeded that word out of our household lexicon years ago, along with dumb and ugly and hate.

Turns out they were just training wheels for the big time.

My husband and I almost never swear, but of course, I can't say the same for parents of other youngsters. You want to know where the bigger kids on the bus are learning the words they're passing on to my kid• Go to a sporting event.

At my son's baseball game last week, a well-dressed mother of the first baseman sat behind my daughter and me in the bleachers. When the opposing team scored a run or stole a base, this woman would let loose with damn or hell, words I consider borderline swearing. But then she turned to a woman sitting next to her and told a story about her son making a mess in the kitchen that morning; she capped the story with a loud, "Holy S**T! was I p***ed at him!"

The words flew out of the woman's mouth, sailed across the bleacher and landed smack in my daughter's mouth. "Holy S**T!" my little one said. (It could have been worse. My daughter could have been listening when the woman later said, "I seen that pitch." Bad grammar is even worse than bad words.)

Little pitchers have big ears, as the saying goes. Turns out the little sisters of pitchers have the biggest ears of all. The day after that incident, another mother became angry with an umpire's call at second base. She shouted something benign through the fence. The third base coach of the opposing team shouted back.

"The call was fine, sit down," he said.

"You go sit down, honey," she shouted back, at which point the coach turned to the bleachers, removed his cap and said "Bite me."

"Bite me," yelped my daughter. This called for an intervention.

"He said 'Fight me,'" I told her, hoping to make a consonant adjustment that would spare me hours of grief.

"Fight me," my daughter said, over and over again.

I'm sure there are avenues of recourse. I could report the coach and the parent or appeal to the league leaders to send out another memo about proper parental behavior. I could have stood up and added my own four letters to the salty exchange (I know swear words starting with A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, M, P, S, T and W if you count wuss).

But that's not my style. I practice what I'm teaching my children: Swear words are nice to know, but they're better when you don't use them.

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