"Mom, what’s the s-word?”
It comes so innocently; no mischief, no fanfare. She’s sitting working on her phonics, a page of “s-blends” images before her – snail; shirt; slow. It’s the most natural place in the world for this thought to crop up in her six-year-old mind, this memory of a recent school-time conversation. Are we in a scene scripted for a TV show?
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, Johnny told me about bad word called the s-word that he’s not supposed to say. What is it?”
The response options flash through my mind. 1: I can tell her she doesn’t need to know it, since it’s not a word we say. 2: I can postpone the discussion– tell her we can talk about it later. [Tempters, options 1 and 2, with their convenience and show of righteousness.] Or 3: I can tell her the simple truth and talk about it. It’s awkward to let this third option come to the fore, to suddenly be flatly stating four-letter words here over the wooden desk. But here we are.
I tell her the word, spell it for her, hear her state it back to me, like a question. Like: why this word? Why’s it bad? What’s so important about it? All implicit in her question. And the oddness of it all floods me suddenly, that at some level we are a people of curse-words – that we choose and put power behind certain words to express badness. We’re a fallen people, and there are fallen words — we swear. The strangeness and allure of sin, all mixed together.
We talk about it. I tell her it’s a word people use on purpose to be rude, and that God tells us that we’re not to be rude or use rude words. That we are to use our words carefully and choose words that uplift and bring love and light. I tell her it’s a word I don’t want to hear her say, nor to teach her little sisters about. “It’s not a secret,” I tell her, “but it’s not something that people in our family say.”
Till now bad words to her have been “hell” and “Oh my God” and “Good Lord” – and I wish for a minute, like every mother before me ever has – that innocence didn’t have to be lost. I wish that other conversations weren’t coming, like one about the other four-letter word and its uses — the crass and the profane ways that we humans twist God’s beauty, His goodness.
But here we are, my daughter and me, living together the moments of the ugly-beautiful. (Because words are the domain of the Creator who used them to speak the world into being, and our marring them and using them cruelly doesn’t make the reality of words any less His, or holy.) And here over the desk and the phonics worksheet, truth and life have been discussed between us, as frankly as I know how. I’m thankful for that.
And I pray for the wisdom and grace to pick Option 3 with my daughter -with all my kids – in every similar conversation. To look for the Option 3 moments, even to initiate Option 3 conversations when the words asking for them haven’t even been mouthed yet by childish lips. Because this was an easy one – a freebie, almost – a 101 entree into the world of messy dialogue a parent would rather not have to have. As they get harder, I need to be there: welcoming, un-startled and un-judging, appropriate, wisdom-giving. Jesus, give me seeing eyes and a spirit that’s ready and open.
Originally published February, 2014