Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Case of the Fucking Moon Melon


"That's no melon!"
Originally uploaded by oskay
“You fucking moon melon” is a sentence I did not expect to hear through the mouth of my three year old son, but hear it I did. In fact, I have been hearing versions of it on a daily basis for more than a week now. It annoyed me and it made me want to feel like I should do something about it, so here’s me doing something about it – writing a post.

I shall start by explaining why I’m annoyed.
First and foremost, I am annoyed because I wanted to be the one introducing my son to the wonders of swearing. Let’s not be around the bush here: like most people, I swear; unlike most people I’m not ashamed of it. On the contrary, I take great pleasure in swearing: when done well, swearing is harmless and relaxing.
Most people would disagree with me on the “harmless” department, but I would beg to differ. I would argue that most people’s pretend antagonism towards swearing is the result of a religious like belief in the power of words. Words, to the non religious amongst thee, form a major part of religious faith: religious people claim that the words in their prayers carry the ability to perform supernatural feats, such as curing illnesses (check out the miracles the Catholic Church used to “approve” Mary MacKillop’s sainthood: her ghost had allegedly answered the prayers of select women to cure them from cancer). If words can have such supernatural effects, one can easily see how not so kind words – swear words – can have negative effects on people. Most people claiming to abhor foul language do not articulate their position on the matter the way I did; they claim swearing is bad but can never tell you why. The skeptic in me can never accept such unfounded claims.
I can, however, provide plenty of proof to the harmless nature of swears. For example, no matter how many times and how many people call me a “son of a bitch”, I will not change from being the son of my very human mother. Technically speaking, it is impossible for a bitch (species: dog) to deliver a living human baby. So that all there is to it, really: I have proved this particular swear is harmless.
Wait, I hear you say: what if this swear is not meant to be interpreted literally? What if it was supposed to affect your self image by damaging the perception you have of your own mother? You’re probably right: this probably is the intention of this and most other swear words uttered towards specific people. But let’s face it: most of the time people curse they do not intend to seriously inflict their words on others; the above case of my son (“moon melon”, a term derived from Lunar Jim, my son’s favorite TV series) is proof. Intention goes a long way: I, as a person that swears quite a lot, cannot remember the last time I actually meant what I said or meant to hurt someone when I used foul language.
In other cases we usually refrain from uttering the swear words in a manner that would allow their target to actually hear them: most of us swear behind the wheel of a car, but once out in the open we’re all nice and cheerful. Last, but not least: if someone is seriously swearing at me, there is absolutely no reason in the world for me to take them seriously unless I believe in the supernatural; since I don’t, I interpret people swearing at me with serious intent as nothing but fools.
That said, there are cases where swear words can definitely have a bad effect. For example, I can see how having a large number of people shouting stuff at you can be detrimentally scary. This can and does happen often on the Internet, where people use the guise of anonymity to say things they otherwise wouldn't have said about others. My point, however, is that these are but a small minority of cases. Most of the time, swearing is harmless fun. We don’t stop driving cars even though there’s not a bad chance they’d kill us, so why should we stop swearing for the remote chance they’ll cause actual damage? Through the application of adequate reasoning we can all have fun swearing.

Having gone through these lengths to explain why I don’t perceive swearing to be the manifestation of evil upon this earth, I now need to do the opposite and explain why I was annoyed with my son’s swearing.
As I said, I was annoyed because I wasn’t the one introducing him to the concept. Instead this was done by J, one of my son’s peers at childcare, a peer who appears to be taking on the role of the alpha male in my son’s childcare group. Obviously, J being a three year old himself, he’s only innocently copying the behavior of adults in his surrounding. You could say that peers like J is what you get when you send your son to a state schooling facility; I would say that what you get is exposure to the real world out there as opposed to keeping oneself in a glasshouse that would, sooner or later, break.
Yet I was keeping my son in the glasshouse myself: I did not introduce him to the magic of swearing. Not because I thought that by doing so he will never swear, but because I was waiting for him to be ready. As I said, adequate swearing requires the application of adequate reasoning, and it is very obvious my son lacks the reasoning capabilities required there.
The problem is that this is always going to be the case and that us parents are always doomed. Our children will always learn how to swear before we want them to do so the same way they are always going to learn about sex before we deem them ready through their peers and through the vast amounts of porn on the web.

The real trick to performing the duties of a parent is to guide your child as he or she prematurely stumbles upon the next big thing they are not ready to properly appreciate yet. It will always land on you as a surprise: a death in the family and you need to explain death; the sudden realization that the steak they’re eating used to be a living cow once upon a time not that long ago and you need to explain where food comes from; etc. The catalog of things too enormous to digest which life presents us with while we’re not ready is too big to mention here.
The question is, how does one parent their child through these challenges? It really is a tough call. I look at myself and I see a person that only had to truly face death when I was 26, and I did so rather poorly. Who am I, then, to tell my three year old better? Well, no one is; that’s the catch.
Handling suggestions would be welcomed. For now, I am trying to explain to my son that words have meaning and that people can be affected by these meanings, so you need to be careful with the application of your words. If you don’t, people will probably perceive you to be stupid. Does the strategy work on my son? Not really. But I do think that over time, applying to his reason, as limited as that sense still is, and setting an example are the best short and long term approaches.

20 comments:

Wicked Little Critta said...

Interesting predicament...

Personally, I agree that kids should be taught that swear words aren't evil or anything like that, and I also think they should be made aware of how others can perceive them and the ramifications that can have.

The trouble is (as you mentioned) his reasoning skills at this stage are limited, and even if they weren't, he'll probably default to self-interest before empathy.

My humble opinion: there are times when kids (particularly small ones) just need to be conditioned. It's a worthy goal to have a child who understands his/her actions and acts in a way that reflects these things, but I believe that before this point, kids just need to be reinforced for good behavior and not for bad behavior. Until they get to the point where you can explain "why." That way they will learn some self-control as well as fit in reasonably well with their peers.

My humble suggestion (assuming you're not already doing it): I'd suggest figuring out why he's using the word (is it funny to him? Does he see that it gets you rattled?) and try to come up with a replacement that is acceptable but will achieve the same goal. Then try to remove whatever reinforcement he's getting from using the word (e.g. attention, or derailing what's going on). Also it could help to praise him when he's using particularly appropriate words.

For now, my favorite new insult is "fucking moon melon." Thanks!

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks for the feedback. I was actually meaning to approach you in private for professional advice, and here you went saving me some work.

Regarding the strategies for dealing with the situation, we've discussed it with childcare and there seem to be three of them:
1. Explaining that it is wrong to act the way he does (and why).
2. Ignoring him.
3. Substituting the annoying clause with another (as you suggest).
In effect, we have been utilizing all three. The first is my favorite; I like to know why I do stuff. The second is easy. The third came into being as a coincidence: we were talking about magicians, and Dylan laughed at the word and started saying "gesh missions" instead. Now, everything's a gesh-mission, and we all laugh about it, which works well because he's not really aware of the nasty aspects of saying "fuck" and thus does not need that bit replaced.
All in all I would say we're making progress on all fronts. I was meaning to say that the problem is solved as I haven't heard of any f-ing moon melons for a few days but then he went ahead with it today. Still, frequency reduction is a good start.

Now for the more philosophical debate. I have a problem with conditioning my son, and I consider it a much bigger problem than having him say "fuck". Obviously, I'm not oblivious to the fact that anything I teach him is some sort of conditioning, but at least I try to provide explanations why I'm doing things as I go (if only for my own benefit, as in to show myself I'm doing the right thing).
My problem is that conditioning means forcing a certain set of beliefs on my son when I prefer him to think for himself. Sure, the tools he has with which to think for himself are limited: he'll probably just copy others or press on buttons he knows work (like swear just to annoy us), but I have hope that eventually things would sort themselves out.
Still, I admit I am confused by the matter.

Sarah said...

Just went back to revisit our discussion surrounding swearing and kids on facebook a few months ago but as you have deleted your account your comments also no longer exist.

Am interested to see how what you thought a few months ago about it compares to what is happening now.

Moshe Reuveni said...

To be honest, I can't remember the exact scenario around which that debate was involved. What I do remember is being repeatedly infuriated by the holier than thou views expressed by your mates, all of which must be Santa Maria reincarnations.

Sarah said...

A lot of what you wrote in your post was expressed that they are just words and people are choosing to give them power and be offended by them. There was disagreement about the appropriateness of using these words with kids. From what i can reconstruct it was something about keeping kids in bubbles away from swearing (me wanting to keep my kids from it) parents role modelling language usage and that you didn't feel there was a difference between using mild vs harsh swear words.

I guess this is where the role modelling argument comes into play as you said there is a lack of reasoning it is all a bit monkey see, monkey do at this stage if he sees people swearing this is what he will do. My son is suddenly a little English man repeating Postman Pats favourite sayings in context which has been astounding "How you getting on Mummy?" So it will be hard to tell him not to if you still do around him. Not having a go at you just making an observation

Moshe Reuveni said...

By all means, have a go. You're right: it's much easier when it happens to someone else.
Now I feel like these are still just words, but I'm annoyed at him saying them so out of context. There are times and places when I say "fuck" myself (a lot of them), but Dylan doesn't follow the same rules of usage that I apply... I'm also afraid he would say these things to others who will be offended.
Note, though, that my main problem is with me not being able to introduce my son to swearing properly myself, instead being tagged along to this whole charade in a rather reactionary manner.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Going back to WLC's feedback re the occasional need to simply condition the child:

Here's an article I stumbled upon this morning, entitled "Teach kids how to think, not what to believe":
http://goo.gl/KM91
While the article discusses the matter of religious schooling in Australian state schools, I am of the opinion its message applies here as well. While I am not at a point I can say I ban conditioning under all circumstances (I am far too ignorant on the matter to be able to make such a call), and while I am aware that at his current mental level almost anything I teach him is some sort of conditioning, I would prefer to use such an approach as a last resort. Frankly, at this from where I'm sitting now, I would prefer my son to swear occasionally than to have him conditioned.
Besides, explaining to him why swearing is wrong is much easier than conditioning; the latter takes much effort...

Sarah said...

You don't believe swearing is wrong though do you?

Moshe Reuveni said...

The only things I really believe in have to do with physics. I believe that if I drop an object it would fall down.
As for swearing, my opinion is that on its own it is not a particularly evil thing. However, I am also of the opinion that offending others without adequate justification is wrong, and often swears are interpreted as an offence.
This offense thing is not set in stone, though. If I swear when the ticket machine on a tram is broken and someone is offended by hearing me uttering such mild swears, then screw them. If I use such language when describing fictitious beings (e.g., gods) and someone is offended because I touched on their invisible friend, then screw them too.
Then there's the example of people whose every second word is "fuck" or some variant. I'm not offended by the swears, I'm offended by their poor vocabulary.

It's complicated.

Wicked Little Critta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wicked Little Critta said...

As is typically the case, I think we basically agree but are coming at it from different angles.

Again, I wholeheartedly agree that we should encourage our kids to think critically and not just blindly accept what they are told. It teaches them how to discern fact from fiction and also to trust themselves as they go through life. The three strategies you listed all seem very good and positive, and combining all three even more so.

I am a little confused, however, as to how you're determining appropriate conditioning from inappropriate conditioning. I disagree with you that conditioning is "forcing a certain set of beliefs." I think you're taking it a step too far. Conditioning is shaping behavior, not judging it. You said you're aware that you condition your son regularly, for example, I'm sure you've taught him to use a fork and a spoon. I'm also pretty sure you haven't gone to lengths to shame him for wanting to use his hands or telling him that using his hands is an evil thing. You've most likely set up the situation so that he's encouraged to use utensils and discouraged to use his hands.

Humans are conditioned everywhere, all the time, and we then make adjustments in our lives to accommodate those things. Why would we not allow children to experience this? Personally, I think that kids should be told as often as reasonably possible the "why" about behavior, but they won't be because no parent can realistically explain every little situation to Jr. And they shouldn't have to. For one, kids aren't stupid and they'll catch on that acting a certain way or asking "why" gets them a few good one on one minutes with mom or dad in which they don't have to do their chores. And two, kids aren't stupid and the inquisitive, thoughtful attitude that you encourage when you can will carry through to many situations. He is YOUR son, and even if you tried to prevent it, he would still learn to think about his actions and the world, because that's what you do. By all means encourage it, I'm just saying that I think it's possible to overdo it.

My personal thought (i.e. if I were dealing with this with my child): My 3-year-old is going to have a hard time understanding that a word shouldn't be said for whatever reason. And yet for me, conditioning him would be beneficial because it would: 1. teach him that there are different kinds of words that can affect situations and other people in different ways, 2. teach him to control what he says, in that not everything that he wants to blurt out should be spoken, and 3. helps to ensure that swearing at school doesn't put him at odds with teachers/kids/kids' parents. I believe that socializing at this age is very important, and a kid who is shunned or labeled can really struggle, potentially leading to more acting out. I would certainly try to get through to him that some people don't like to hear certain words, or get upset by them, but I wouldn't personally rely solely on that for the above reasons.

Wicked Little Critta said...

If, however, you honestly would prefer that he swear occasionally than for you to discourage it through conditioning, then there's your answer...I won't be winning you over on this one!

Sarah said...

I think I finally understand what you are saying.

Swear words are only words and only have power because society has deemed them rude and offensive. People use them because they feel they are taboo or naughty and this gives them a pay off of some kind otherwise they would walk around saying cucumber or something as equally unmeaningful.

Swearing when something happens or at objects is subjective as it depends on the meaning the people around the swearer take from the situation. So it is the other people placing judgements on the swearer whether they think it is ok or not. 2 different people can feel completely different about the same situation. They may make different judgements about the swearer's socio economic status, level of education, vocab etc. They will also judge whether or not the situation required that level of response. So it is not the swearer but the people around them that makes that use of swear words offensive or not. In effect it is their responsibility if they take offence or not, not what the swearer is saying.

However once you start swearing at people in a way to intentionally demean them or be hurtful that is where swearing is not appropriate.

Little kids using the swear words out of context is a problem. They do not have an understanding of the significance of the words or the potential result of using these hurtful words. They may offend or hurt others which they had not intended to. It is a parents job to move them in a different direction until they are aware of what they are actually doing when they are swearing.

So it is all about informed intent when using these words rather than societies view on the words being good or bad. If you have full awareness of what you are choosing to do it is one thing but if you are just blindly going along using words everyone else does without thinking about it or understanding what you are doing it is a completely different matter.

Am I close?

Moshe Reuveni said...

It's been a while since I last felt overwhelmed by the feedback to my blog, so I have to start by really thanking you two for the educational experience this has been. If only I could get the blog to be this effective more often...

Initial feedback (but there's a lot here I need to digest before you can quote me in court):
1. WLC: I pretty much fully agree with you.
To be honest I didn't think of the need to control oneself as an educational necessity before, simply because I am annoyed with society's inhibitions and try to encourage openness, but you're right: under certain situations it is an important skill and I should try to educate my son accordingly.
Second, Dylan is at a point where using swear words is actually a ticket for social acceptance: it makes him feel like the bigger kids at childcare. The need to deal with it properly is more evident when, as you point out, it would be the other way around during his later years.
2. Sarah: I don't think I could have put it as well as you did if you were to give me ten years. I read your inputs and just went "WOW", telepathy does work. THANK YOU.

Let me know when you two start your own blogs. You will do a much better job that I have.

Wicked Little Critta said...

I'll start a blog after I get on Twitter.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Also, this article was just emailed to me this afternoon and it seemed too coincidental to not mention here: http://www.bigquestionsonline.com/blogs/heather-wax/when-do-children-develop-skepticism

Moshe Reuveni said...

Regardless of the when question, I'd be very skeptical about anything published in something dealing with both religion and science. How can you tell where the bullshit ends and the science begins?
More to the point, skepticism is hard and it takes an effort. Looking at my own self retrospectively, I attribute my skepticism to two factors:
1. The presence of an uncle that dared mock religion when no one else would.
2. Exposure to the work of skeptics, most notably Carl Sagan.
My point is that I don't care much about when skepticism evolves; I want my son to grow in an environment that nourishes skepticism.

Anyway, an interesting read.

Moshe Reuveni said...

P.S. with regards to "I'll start a blog after I get on Twitter":
I'll start conditioning my son not to swear after I start conditioning him to use a knife & fork. Thus far he's more like his barbarian father.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Further on Sarah's inputs concerning "informed intent":
We had ourselves a divisional meeting at work on Friday in which we had one of those silly games meant as a team building exercise. One team leader said the game is too hard, and I - with my usual awkward English translation skills - said "since when is hardness a problem for you". Everyone around made a big fuss of my words and I had to apologize.
I really, but really, had no ill intention in mind. It's just that I failed to say "difficulty" instead of "hardness" because I wanted to use the same word she used.
In effect, my ignorance was very similar to my three year old's ignorance when he says "fuck".

Moshe Reuveni said...

Interesting fuel to the fire from a person who thinks the way I do re swearing (PZ Myers):
http://bit.ly/eTin5b