Like every weekday morning, I walked my daughter and my guy to the car for their morning commute to school and work respectively. It’s fall, and the air was crisp and the ground wet with dew. Little Buggy kicked a few leaves mercilessly and giggled. Matt carried his tool bag and sander. I carried his drill in one hand, and held Bug’s little palm in my other. I strapped her into her booster, leaned over to plant kisses and pretend to gobble at her neck, then closed her door. Matt and I kissed and hugged and gave each other well-wishes for the new day. Everything seemed unremarkable in its simple ordinariness. As I turned to walk away, Buggy knocked on the window. Thinking she wanted just one more kiss, I opened her car door obligingly, only to hear “Now get your ass inside and get to work!”
My daughter’s introduction to ‘bad’ words undoubtedly came from me. I have four brothers (two older, two younger) all of whose cussing vocabularies were fully developed very early – and all of whom were obviously influential to my development, linguistically and otherwise. And, to be honest, I still cuss like a sailor unapologetically. But, just as I have impressed upon her that mommies and daddies can have ‘adult’ beverages, so, too, have I related that mommies and daddies (and adults, in general) can use ‘adult’ words. It isn’t as though we spend our days doing tequila shots and dropping the F-bomb (in fact, F-bombs, being the mother of all cuss words, are reserved for rare and overwhelming situations); I think of it more as a lesson in moderation and nuance.
The first time Bug used a cuss word we were driving home from school when a car pulled out in front us. I pounded on the brakes while yelling “holy fuck!” at the top of my lungs. It was a very near-collision, one that welled up inside of me an adrenaline rush, followed immediately by the horror of ‘what ifs.’ She was maybe three years old at the time, tucked safely into the backseat, likely as shocked as I was at the spontaneity of it all. Approximately two or three seconds after, once I had begun to collect myself and drive on, I hear the sweetest, tiniest little “holy fuck” ever to be uttered emanate from the backseat. As most of us know, any reaction to this would have granted the words the true power that they hold; so I drove on, without any reaction noticeable to her, gushing internally with tears of laughter and adrenaline.
About a year after that, a dear friend gifted us a children’s book, It’s a Book, by Lane Smith. The main characters are a gorilla, a mouse, and a jackass – like, an actual donkey, not like the jackasses we all deal with in our day-to-day lives. To give you the main thrust of the story, the gorilla is reading a book and the jackass cannot comprehend how the book works since he is accustomed only to electronics. Eventually, the jackass becomes enthralled with reading the book and decides not to return it to the gorilla. The gorilla leaves to go to the library, when the jackass says “Don’t worry, I’ll charge it up when I’m done!” To which the mouse pops out and retorts “You don’t have to … It’s a book, Jackass.” This book was an absolute revelation to little Buggy’s brain. Here was a way to use an appropriate-ish word, Jackass, as both legitimate terminology and as a put-down.
The clouds had parted and the sun shone down and a new day of language had emerged! We’ve had many talks surrounding the appropriate use of ‘jackass,’ how it is inappropriate to use toward people when a simple ‘idiot’ will suffice, how it is perfectly acceptable to use when referring to a donkey, specifically a male donkey, how it is never acceptable to use in a school or peer environment. But it stuck with her in all of the ways that her first, sweet “holy fuck” had not. From there, we have spread out. I will occasionally allow her to use ‘ass’ without consequence when referring to an actual rear – I mean, if it’s good enough for Chaucer. Lately, she has come to characterize things that are especially cool as ‘badass,’ which makes me alternately cringe and chuckle depending on present company. The dreaded F-bomb has yet to resurface, though I’ve caught wind of a little ‘shit’ here and there. And thus far, none of this has leaked beyond the house and our immediate family.
This may be some really unorthodox parenting shit. Still it is important to me to teach my daughter that words have deep and lasting power, after all, once said they can never be taken back. But as much as the actual words have power, even more so do our tone and inflection when using them. A jackass is simply a jackass and will never hold a candle to a six year old’s mean-spirited ‘nanny nanny boo boo.’ And a delighted little “get your ass to work” is about the funniest start I can imagine for my day.
Megan Riggle lives in Louisville, Kentucky where she uses her MFA in creative writing to teach her six year old the ins and outs of cussing. You can follower her on instagram HERE