What Would You Do? The Tiny Cusser Edition

When your toddler learns a bad word Read more

what to do when my toddler learns a bad word

Confession: I swear sometimes. Somewhat frequently, actually. Okay … often. I swear often. (Sidebar: I didn’t exactly come by it naturally: I came up in a place where expletives from adults rarely went beyond “My lands!” or “Son of a biscuit.” I don’t know when or why my language went rogue, but boy, did it. Actually? Come to think of it? I blame all the New Jersey drivers I’ve encountered in the last decade. Those assholes.)

Anyway. Neither I nor my husband swear around our kid. Honest. Except … well, obviously we have at some point, which we realized when the two-year-old blurted out a decidedly bad word. In context. With feeling. I won’t tell you what word I’m talking about in case my hometown pastor or my fourth grade teacher is reading this — I will only tell you that it is one of the biggies, and it also sounds sort of like the way he pronounces “Uncle Dennis” — which is what I’ve been trying to get him to say instead of the curse. (Hey, sometimes it works! Sorry, Uncle Dennis.)

The baby-swearing troubled me for a few reasons (I’ll get to those in a minute), but our agreed-upon parental method of dealing with this to date has been to totally ignore every utterance of the word. No visible shock, no giggling (in front of Luke, anyway), no getting mad, no tears (in front of Luke, anyway). Nada. Sometimes I even turn my back, acting like I’ve not heard anything. Sometimes I ask, “Did you say Uncle Dennis?” Right off the bat, these routes seemed to work fairly well; I figured we’d try them for another couple weeks. At that point, we decided, if Luke is still saying it, we’d finally have to tell him it’s not a nice word, that he’s not to use it. (For obvious reasons, I hesitate telling this to a two-year-old, who will have his interest piqued simply because a word is verboten. It will then, of course, become a thing.)

The ignoring route seemed like a measured, calm response to me, and I felt good about it … until earlier this week, when we found ourselves in the middle of the Please Touch Museum. Luke was in the driver’s seat of one of those toy race cars; at his side was a little girl who had climbed in to be his passenger. It was so cute — like a Norman Rockwell painting, the two of them driving along like a miniature married couple. And then — boom. He let a big, fat [redacted] fly. (Perhaps he was cut off by a pretend Jersey driver?) From Norman Rockwell to Louis C.K. in the blink of an eye.

I quickly interjected — loudly enough for the girl’s caretaker to hear me — “HAHA, YES, WE LOVE UNCLE DENNIS.” And then my sweet son smiled at us all, gave me a look that was like “No, mom, not Dennis”, and repeated himself with perfect clarity. Like, in slow motion.

In my rush to not pass on cussing on like a bad case of the flu to someone else’s kid, I behaved in a way that was neither measured nor calm, stuttering out something like, “Oh dear, um, okay, let’s let the little girl drive now,” and lifted him out of the car. Poor kid didn’t know why he had to cede his seat. He was upset. I was flustered. And then the second-guessing commenced.

Honestly, I wish I had played it a little cooler, simply apologized to the little girl’s caregiver and shot her one of those knowing parent looks that says “We’re working on it” — all while calmly bending down and distracting him. I also wish I was the mom who didn’t have to ask myself whether this anxiety over a word was really a worry about my son, or whether it was about a worry about being judged as a non-perfect parent. (Doesn’t a swearing kid indicate my failure of both self-control and baby control?)

Up until now, outside normal baby tantrums, the most embarrassing thing I’ve had to worry about my funny, gentle little nugget yelling in public is “Bublé!” (As in Michael Bublé, for whom Luke has developed a weird and deep affection.) But now, suddenly, it’s like I’m pushing a dockworker around in a City Mini. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I do wonder if I have the stamina to continue on the “ignoring and distracting” plan — which does seem to be working pretty well, but which is also like many other parenting endeavors, in that it’s just bound to have some rough, embarrassing, guilt-laden moments.

I actually found much comfort recently when my friend Jen — an amazing mom of two — told me that her adorable little 4-year-old marches around the house muttering “Jesus Christ!” (Parenting Rule #430: When it’s someone else’s kid, it’s hilarious.) Truth is, I can’t get enough of other parents telling me that this isn’t just me, that they’ve been there — and also telling me how they’ve responded, because clearly, I don’t pretend to know it all.

And if they can’t do that, well … if anyone happens to hear my two-year-old cheerfully swear like a sailor when he drops his shovel in the sandbox, maybe we can just exchange one of those knowing mom glances, and silently agree that it’s pretty hard to be perfect, or to always know the right thing to do, or even — sometimes — to just watch your mouth.

Until then, well, I’ll just be here, talking about Uncle Dennis. And practicing my best “son of a biscuit.”