There’s a scene in A Christmas Story where the family is driving home, gets a flat tire and Ralphie, in a nod to approaching adulthood, is allowed the honor of getting out of the car and assisting his father in changing the tire. Things all of a sudden go horribly wrong, however, when he accidently lets the lug nuts he is assigned to hold, go flying off into the night. In another nod to his approaching adulthood, Ralphie accidently lets loose the “Queen Mother of Dirty Words,” (censored in the movie as the word “fudge”), and there is a classic scene that follows wherein Ralphie’s mother washes his mouth out with soap and embarks on a mission to determine where he learned the word (ignoring the obvious fact that his father uses the word daily). Like most iconic movie scenes, it resonated with so many fans of the movie because most of us had a similar experience while growing up or even recently with our own children.
After having children, I didn’t have a difficult time adjusting my language to be kid-appropriate, so I was surprised when very early on, each time one of the children encountered a challenging situation, they would shake their heads in anger and yell, “HOLY SMOKE!”
Now, there is only one person I know who uses the term “holy smoke,” and that is my eighty-something-year-old father. I must have heard that term a hundred times on a Sunday during football season. It was usually accompanied by a swift wave of the hand, the footrest of the Lay-Z-Boy hitting the ground and my father stomping out of the television room to get another slice of raisin bread.
In this decade, it’s a little odd to hear a set of three-year-old triplets walking around “holy smoking” everything, and when my multiples began using it at the church-run preschool they attended, I decided it wasn’t appropriate, and immediately yelled at my father on the telephone from across the country.
“I don’t think I’ve been using it in front of them!” he protested. “Well, you’re the only person I know who says that,” I responded.
A week later, I heard our sweet seventy-something neighbor lady using it while poking around in her rose bushes. It’s got to be the only time my father has been wrongly-accused of anything.
All of this seemed ridiculous a few weeks later when one of the three-year-olds objected to having her sibling come into her bedroom and very firmly said, “Get the fudge out of here,” except just like Ralphie, . . she didn’t say “fudge.”
I went on a tirade and began asking everybody who had exposure to the children what kind of language they’d been using around the kids and nobody would admit to using the “Queen Mother of Dirty Words.” A few days later we were heading to story time and while walking through the parking lot at the bookstore, I overheard it three times before we got to the door.
Corse language is everywhere. I realized my job at that time was to limit exposure, but it would soon transition to explaining choices and offering alternative codes of conduct. Now I find myself mostly saying things such as, “Do you want to get a good job someday? Do you want to be respected by a wide variety of people? If you do, you can’t use that kind of language.” (Even though, they will soon see that good jobs, wide respect and a clean mouth do not always go together).
Now I am faced with the dilemma of categorizing which words actually ARE bad words. Of course, there are a core set of bad words that are not at issue. It’s not those words, but rather, it’s the category I think of as the “oh my god!”s and the “shut up!”s and the “douchebag”s that present the current challenge. All day long, we come into contact with good people who are successful, kind and well-respected who routinely use this category of talk, yet this category is not acceptable in our home. There are probably a hundred things we are doing as a family that are more crude, but we’ve chosen to draw a line here, for whatever reason, most likely because my husband and I were not allowed to say “shut up” when we were growing up, and still don’t typically use it, and back in our day, well. . .a douche meant something different—an actual douche.
There are all sorts of kids at school using all this language, and I’m sure I appear silly to my kids when I tell them it’s not okay to say “shut up,” but I don’t think it’s the last time I will be working hard to convince them following their peers will not always take them to the best place. If only they could back to using “holy smoke.”