I used to think that I was very good at monitoring Kent’s media content. I only let him watch shows on PBS for kids, like Curious George and Wild Kratts. I turned off the radio whenever NPR featured a story with disturbing content, such as terrorism or sex abuse. I have chided Eddie for watching Terminator 2 or the local news in Kent’s presence. I congratulated myself on being the more aware and conscientious parent.
All that changed when I let my then-five-year-old son watch a livestream video game.
Before I elaborate, let me backtrack. My son plays hockey. Every week, he has a private lesson with his coach prior to his team practice. As I got to know Coach Dom better, I learned that he wrote songs for and played in a band. He was also a graphic artist and was working on a graphic novel. But the thing he talked about with the most zeal was his livestream video gaming business. Because I was never into video games (and probably because I’m over the hill), I was unclear on exactly what it was that he did. Nonetheless, I was swept up by Dom’s childlike, obsessive enthusiasm, which was infectious, even inspiring.
When my youngest sister, Karen, mentioned that her friend loved watching livestream gaming, I mentioned that Kent’s coach did just that. I forwarded Dom’s link to her to forward to her friend. It occurred to me then that I should tune in myself just to check it out. After all, I’ve attended the book launch parties of my author friends. I’ve attended the art shows of my artist friends.
So what if I didn’t really understand what livestream gaming was? This would be a great opportunity to find out. In fact, I could make it a family event and include Kent. It would be fun for Kent to see his mentor doing something outside of hockey.
So I opened my laptop and tuned in to Dom’s stream. Kent was wearing his pajamas, holding his blanket and stuffed pig while playing with his Legos. I said to him, “Do you recognize that voice?”
Kent perked his ears. His face lit up. He ran to me, climbed onto my lap, and pointed at the screen. “That’s Coach Dom! He’s my friend!” he exclaimed.
As we sat together and watched, however, a sense of unease crept upon me. I recognized Dom’s physical body, but I didn’t recognize his personality. The person I knew at the rink always spoke in a way that was tenderhearted, polite to a fault, and . . . well, kid-friendly. Dom also had a physical appearance that matched his demeanor: adorably nerdy, black-framed glasses perched on a sweet, round, baby face that made me want to pinch those cheeks and feed him. In contrast to Hockey Coach Dom, Livestream Dom’s tone of voice was different. The content of his conversation was different. His language was different. I felt as if I had headed for Mr. Roger’s neighborhood and ended up at a frat party by mistake.
Did I just hear the F-word?
Nah. Couldn’t be. That would be like seeing Kent’s kindergarten teacher cursing and screaming at her kids in the grocery store (for the record, that has never happened). What I was hearing didn’t fit the person I knew, so I dismissed it.
Another minute passed. Another F-bomb dropped. I slammed the laptop shut.
“Okay, that was fun! Time for bed!” I announced with false cheerfulness.
“But why-y-y-y?” Kent whined.
“Because I said so!”
For the next couple of days, I scanned Kent’s face, searching for evidence that he had heard and absorbed the online F-bombs. He asked no questions about the livestream dialogue. There was no noticeable change in his behavior. I exhaled a sigh of relief.
The following week, I went to pick up Kent from school. As the kindergarteners were let out one by one, Adryan, Kent’s classmate, approached me. “Kent’s Mom, Kent was bad today,” Adryan said in a serious, adult-like voice. “Teacher Ziff wants to talk to you.” Sadly, this was a common occurrence. Kent got into trouble frequently, and Adryan was always the messenger. I approached Kent’s teacher, who explained that Kent had said the F-word several times that day to the cafeteria lady during lunch.
I was certain that this was my fault. I shouldn’t have let him watch that livestream without checking it out myself first.
As we walked home, I said to Kent, “You teacher informed me that you said the F-word today.”
“Well, Brian said it first.” (The kid’s name wasn’t really Brian. I changed his name to protect his privacy. I also don’t remember his real name.)
My first reaction was relief: he hadn’t picked this up from his coach. That was followed by consternation that he had picked this up from another kindergartener. I could control Kent’s media, but I couldn’t control what kids at school said.
“He kept saying, ‘What the fuck? What the fuck?’” Kent continued, “and I told him, ‘You shouldn’t say What the fuck, Brian.’” Kent’s voice was loud. In contrast, the neighborhood was church-silent. The whole time he spoke, he was holding my hand while carrying his stuffed pig.
“But you shouldn’t say it either,” I pointed out.
“I shouldn’t say what?”
“You know, that!”
I ignored him.
“What, Mama?” he persisted, his voice escalating. “WHAT AM I NOT SUPPOSED TO SAY?”
“YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO SAY ‘WHAT THE FUCK’!!!”
That last word echoed down the quiet street. That’s when I noticed another family staring at us a few blocks away. Great, I thought. Now we’ll be known in the neighborhood as The Four Letter Family.
“Look, it’s not good to say bad words,” I told him.
“Why?” Kent asked.
“Because . . .”
That was a good question. Why was swearing bad? I’ve always felt that swearing was bad in certain contexts but less bad in other contexts, but I could never articulate exactly why, nor had I ever been inclined to examine it. It didn’t bother me when my friends did it, but it bothered me when people did it in a professional or formal setting. It also rubbed me the wrong way when children did it. Why did I have this unconscious double standard?
“Because it doesn’t sound polite,” I replied. “It makes people uncomfortable. It’s a lazy form of expression that prevents you from being more creative and descriptive.”
That didn't sound satisfying, but I couldn’t come up with something better.
Regardless, I had to consider the potential consequences of Kent’s burgeoning, off-color vocabulary: frequent flyer visits to the principal’s office, being excluded from play dates by discerning parents, the cafeteria lady succumbing to a mental breakdown—all evidence that I was an unfit mother. Kent was a strong-willed child. Merely instructing him to refrain from doing something would only encourage, not extinguish, the offending behavior. He needed stiff penalties.
“Kent,” I said, “I don’t want you to say bad words anymore. I won’t give you any consequences this time, but from this point on, if I catch you saying bad words, you will earn yellow points.”
What is a yellow point? I have a traffic light at home. I dole out green points for good behavior, yellow for bad behavior, and red for aggression. Kent earns an allowance for green minus yellow and red points. He loses screen time and other privileges for yellow and red points.
To be clear and fair—so he couldn’t argue that he didn’t know and hence shouldn’t earn yellow points—I listed all the forbidden words. I sounded like a George Carlin act.
The whole time I spoke, a small voice in my conscience nagged at me . . .
I have a confession to make. I am not a perfect role model. I’m hard working. I’m honest. I’m very nice to people. But I have one flaw. On rare occasions, when I am having an acutely negative experience and when I am alone or with people with whom I feel very comfortable (e.g. my husband or my sisters), I use foul language.
Unfortunately, during times of high stress and inattention, I can also be too comfortable around my son.
Sometimes foul language feels like an ambush predator lying in wait for the moment I relax and let down my guard. For example, during a marriage counseling session, I got so comfortable with the counselor that I described something as “shitty” (I wasn’t describing my husband). As soon as that word escaped my lips, I remembered that our counselor was a devout Christian. I felt bad. But at least I didn’t have to worry about our counselor leaving the session, screaming “shitty” left and right just because she heard me say it.
Which leads me to my second confession: if profanity is genetic, then Kent definitely inherited my genes. Long before Kent watched the livestream, Adryan’s mom, who generously tutored Kent in Spanish twice a week, reported to me that Kent had said, “Dammit!” several times while playing at her house. I don’t recall ever saying that in his presence, but I can’t guarantee that it never happened. I was nervous after the livestream incident precisely because Kent’s brain is foul language flypaper.
I mentally divide Kent’s vocabulary into two categories: the words we teach him explicitly and the words he picks up on his own. The explicit words I subdivide into two sub-categories: words I teach and words my husband, Eddie, teaches.
Here are examples of words I teach explicitly and use frequently:
(You get a sense of what kinds of issues we have at home.)
Now here are examples of words Eddie teaches explicitly and uses frequently:
I am extremely peeved that Kent consistently picks up Eddie’s explicit vocabulary faster than mine. But I am happy to report that, after three years of relentless nagging, he can finally say “embarrassed,” “creative,” and “alternative solutions” spontaneously and correctly. We are still working on “please” and “thank you.”
Though Kent still struggles with “please” and “thank you,” he has acquired the following vocabulary with zero effort:
This is probably my fault. To my credit, “What the fuck” is not on that list.
I have two competing points of view about the use of profanity:
Viewpoint A: in certain contexts, profanity may be okay, even appropriate. Let’s face it, when that heavy milk carton falls on your bare foot, spewing a torrent of milk all over your kitchen floor, “Shucky darn!” just doesn’t have the same cathartic effect. It’s like eating low-fat ice cream—so unsatisfying! Better to indulge in the real thing but less frequently and in smaller portions. The key is to pick the appropriate contexts for blowing off that pent up steam. It’s all about proper code switching.
Viewpoint B: It is hypocritical to tell kids that they shouldn’t swear and then turn around and do it yourself. You need to walk your talk and practice what you preach.
Initially, I was inclined to lean towards Viewpoint A. However, there are two problems with Viewpoint A:
Unlike Coach Dom, I am not a masterful code switcher. With me, what you see is what you get—all the time. This is not good when it comes to profanity.
I was threatening to dole out yellow points to my son for swearing. If I didn’t hold myself to the same standard . . . well, that just didn’t feel fair.
I was safer going with Viewpoint B. I would have to put a plug on my profanity.
This turned out to be harder than I thought. (Think back to my low-fat analogy in Viewpoint A.) Not long after I made my vow, I was crawling up the 110 Freeway during rush hour on a Friday to attend my author-friend Andy Roe’s reading of his debut novel, Miracle Girl, at Skylight Books. Traffic was at a standstill. I was going to be late. My adrenaline soared. “Shit!” I muttered under my breath. Then I remembered that Kent was in the backseat. Dammit, I used foul language again! And I can’t stop! I’m a shitty-ass parent! I thought, banging my forehead against the steering wheel. Fortunately, Kent had fallen asleep.
I learned that week that, as with Kent, I could not be corrected with a mere lecture. If I wanted to change, I had to go deeper. As I searched my murky soul, I noticed that my use of profanity correlated with my stress level. Having a special needs kid increased my stress exponentially. I didn’t realize how severe my stress was until it was almost too late. By then, my immune system was faltering. I went from not getting sick for a whole year to catching colds once a month. I was having anxiety attacks. Had I treated my profanity as my friend instead of the enemy, I would have listened to what it was trying to tell me and sought help early on instead of waiting until I was standing outside the school cafeteria, crying uncontrollably, because I could no longer cope with my son’s behavior.
In addition to getting help, I also changed my approach to life. I trained myself to be more realistic about what I could accomplish. I learned to refrain from packing my schedule. Refusing to multi-task has significantly decreased incidences of swearing. I now have fewer anxiety attacks. I also feel happier.
There are other little tricks I have employed to slice through my stress and cut down on curse words, such as purchasing a new hockey bag. This is how my son’s gear used to look:
I call this bag The Black Hole. I dare you to find a snack bar, a roll of hockey tape, or Kent's teey-tiny elbow pads in under ten seconds when you're running late.
Here’s how his gear looks now:
Since acquiring this bag, I have noticed my profanity plummeting, especially on Tuesdays and Sundays.
Eventually, several yellow points later, the pediatric profanity stopped. Kent turned six. Summer started. All seemed well.
Several weeks into summer break, I picked up Kent from hockey camp. He was in the locker room with his camp coach and a few other kids. He was still wearing his helmet, shin guards, and jock shorts and was hitting a ball into the goal with his stick. He swung at the ball, hurling it towards the net. He missed.
“Oh crap!” he exclaimed.
Then he hit the ball again. And missed again.
Then he hit it again.
“What the . . .”
Coach Ricky shot me a nervous glance. I wondered if he thought I was a shitty-ass parent.
Then Kent hit the ball again.
“Did he just say what I think he said?” asked an older boy. His eyes were wide with shock—and excitement.
Though Kent was found by his neuropsychologist to have severe working memory deficits, his long-term memory was clearly high-functioning. I realized then that curtailing profanity in this household would be a life-long work-in-progress.
Adolescence should be interesting.
In spite of our setbacks, I will continue to strive to reduce my stress and set a good example for my wayward son.
And if all else fails, I can always wait for the next time my husband takes my son for a weekend camping trip. I will look over my shoulder, and when no one is looking or listening, I will watch livestream gaming and curse all I want.
I owe a big thanks to Coach Dom for agreeing to be a character in my story. Dom is a great coach, a great guy, and a good sport. He also does not use profanity in the presence of children. If you like livestream gaming, friendly banter, and profanity, visit www.twitch.tv/gorillawolfgaming.com.