Now, it’s true that we have a pretty liberal speech policy at our house (hey, we’re academics), but I must tell you honestly that hearing the preschool teacher recite the offending word onto our answering machine gave us pause. No, that’s an understatement. We were horrified. Our rule has always been that there are certain things grownups may do that children may not. Drink coffee, for example, and operate power tools. Saying certain words falls into this category, and although it is never OK for anyone (child or adult) to call someone else a name, it is OK for an adult to use “grownup words.” The list of grownup words is actually pretty short – we let our kids say some things that other parents might not – but the word on the answering machine is definitely on it.
My extremely grounded friend Kittybelle, a former teacher educator whose opinion on such matters I find invaluable, tells me that a fascination with potty words is completely developmentally appropriate at Ben’s age. When she taught preschool, she says, children would routinely sneak off to a corner of the playground to whisper them to each other. She finds this both unavoidable and, probably because her children are adults, amusing. She said to tell Ben that it’s not a preschool word and he shouldn’t say it at preschool, and then to drop it. Which we did, seemingly successfully – as far as I know (and I think I would know), there have been no repeat incidents.
But this brings me to a broader question: why do we care if children use these words? I have been thinking about that since it happened. With the coffee and the chainsaw, there are obvious health and safety issues governing the restrictions we place on children. With words, the issues are far less obvious, but I have come to the conclusion that they are no less (well, maybe a little less) important. Children are dichotomous thinkers – right or wrong, yes or no. Sharing: right. Hitting: wrong. Water: yes. Beer: no. There is no nuance, there is no context. They’re learning those things, sure, but it’s not there yet. Yet language is all about context and nuance. Witness a recent exchange between Ben and me:
Ben: Mommy, what does “speechless” mean? [a word I must have used in a conversation with someone else while he was listening]
Me: Ummm… it means… you don’t know what to say.
Me: How was playing with Liz? [a new babysitter he hadn’t met before]
Ben: At first I was speechless, but then it was fun.
You might argue that this is a problem with my definition (and you might be correct), but the point is that the different shades of meaning are still lost on him. Does it mean that or not? Yes or no? I guess what I’m saying is that, while the choice is between yes and no, grownup words are a no. Once he can handle sometimes, we’ll see.