I have a game that I play with my son. We read books before bed together every night (my wife and I take turns), and each time he and I read, we play the game.
The game doesn’t have a name, but it goes like this: While reading, I’ll randomly insert a different word in place of what the book actually says. The new words are silly and borderline inappropriate, like “butt,” “burp,” “fart,” etc. – words that aren’t particularly bad but some sensitive folks might consider offensive if thrown around too much.
Of course, my son knows that, for example, “Weird” Al Yankovic’s When I Grow Up does not have the lines:
That’s something I’d really been thinking about,
And I just couldn’t wait to let all those farts out.So he’ll laugh, and say “No that’s not what it says!” I’ll point at the word I replaced, and reply “Okay, so what’s the real word?” And we don’t move on until he’s read the word. The game works, and most importantly, my son loves it. He’s amused and engaged, and his reading’s improved. He’s even learned lots of new words, just by learning that Neil Gaiman didn’t write a book titled Crazy Butt.
Despite the success of the game, some parents and educators would probably tell me not to do it, or to use less inappropriate words. After all, we don’t want our kids learning words they shouldn’t, right?
Sure, there are words that I don’t ever want my son using; derogatory slurs, mainly. Hate speech. But the game has made me wonder at what point do we just accept that our kids will learn the “inappropriate” words, and teach them what those words mean and why they’re inappropriate?
We have a rule for my son for a number of words that he knows: in the house, with us, is fine, but not outside the house or with company. Why do we do this? Because we’ve taken the time to explain to him what the words mean and why some people might be offended. We tell him when a word is okay by us, but maybe not for others, and those words stay in the house. We know and trust our son’s intelligence and ability to accept the differentiation. He’s only six, but thus far the rule has worked extremely well.
Recently, however, he’s been picking up some words that are much worse. He likes to watch video game walkthroughs on YouTube, and many of the men and women who post walkthroughs do a terrible job of censoring themselves. We’ve been forced to abandon a few channels because we were offended, and we’ve had several long conversations with our son about why he can’t ever use that word he just heard.
Getting across the concept that some words are just bad (I can hear George Carlin in my head as I write that) is tricky with a six-year-old. We want to instill an appreciation of his freedom of speech – it’s never too early to learn about one of our most important rights – while still getting across that respecting others sometimes means not saying certain things.
Thus far our son’s done wonderfully. I know that someday, knowing the words means he’ll use them without thinking. It’s probably inevitable, but I’d rather him know why not to say them than have him learn to use them later without understanding why he shouldn’t.