When words fail, kids reach for the unprintable

The following is a newspaper column I wrote that never got published:

So my 4-year-old, was standing at her little chalkboard, describing to her dad what she’s just drawn as her big brother sat at the dinner table facing her and watching the whole thing

4-year-old: This is you, Daddy, do you like it?
Dad: Yeah, I do! That’s a great tie, too, that you made for me.
4-year-old: That’s not a tie, Dad.
Dad: What is it?
4-year-old: It’s a tree.
Big Brother: That doesn’t look like a tree.
4-year-old: It IS! It IS a tree.
Big Brother: It doesn’t look like a tree, it looks like
4-year-old: It IS a tree, you dumb a**!

Mortified, her dad and I stare at each other while trying unsuccessfully not to crack up. Yes, I know, you’re not supposed to encourage them by laughing, but by golly, it wasn’t the reflexive cursing brought on by pain, like saying “(enter curse word of your choice here)!” when you stub your toe. Rather, it was the extremely conscious and situation-appropriate use of foul language by a mere 4-year-old. 

Her brother, of course, made it worse by egging it on and yelling repeatedly, “She called me a stupid donkey!” To which she retorted, “I did NOT say STUPID!” — a word that she knows quite well is verboten in our household because she exclaims every time Sponge Bob or Patrick ever says it on TV, “Ooh, Mom, he said stupid!” So to her 4-year-old mind, grasping to convey her brother’s sheer idiocy, “dumb a–” was the perfect phrase since “stupid” was out of bounds

And of course we told her it was inappropriate to use those words because we KNOW (pause for sanctimonious effect) Foul Language Is The Sign Of A Small Mind. And vice versa, because the smaller the mind, the fouler the language. I know this because I could cuss like a sailor when I was a kid. Where did I learn this? Can’t blame my mom or dad, they didn’t curse … in English. So I could curse like a Filipino sailor too. 

But the juiciest language, that spontaneous, stream-of-conscious cussing that was the lingua franca of my youth? That I learned on the street. As in the sidewalks of of my elementary school. Oh yeah, I picked up the B word, the F word, the S word, and all the other letters in between during recess and lunch from my classmates outside of our classroom. Of course, none of it was ever repeated before my parents, or in frontany other adults for that matter. It was a way for us kids to feel grown up, to swagger and use language that would earn us a back hand across the mouth if uttered in the presence of anyone over the ripe old age of say, 18. We even had contests to string together the worst imprecations into longer and longer chains that had to be as creative as they were foul. 

But of course, like the sugar bomb cereals of my youth, I outgrew it. As my small mind expanded, so did my vocabulary, and curse words became the weapons of last resort during arguments, and a weak one at that, a sign that I could do no more damage. But a part of me mourns the freedom of childhood and that delicious shiver of naughtiness as I waited to see whether I would be caught saying those bad words. 

So don’t ask me where she learned that phrase.

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