In the car driving home from school last week, my six year-old sighed heavily in the backseat. I tilted the rearview mirror and caught clouds crossing his face.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
He half smiled, revealing that little lost-tooth gap that still hasn’t grown in. “I just keep saying a word in my head that I don’t want to say out loud. I keep telling myself to stop, but I can’t, it just goes over and over!”
I won’t deny that for a moment I went all worst-case-scenario on him; envisioning a man with Tourette’s I once encountered in a café, who had to shut himself in the bathroom to ride out his verbal attack, which rattled the walls of the with a string of foul words. But I pulled myself together and considered the more likely reality that taboos have a funny way of taunting children until we address them head on. “What word is it?” I asked.
In a voice so small I could barely hear, he offered, “The F one.”
I didn’t have to stop dramatically and ask ‘where did you hear that’?—unfortunately one of the Minecraft vloggers we stumbled across on YouTube used that word liberally in a sixty second video we fumbled to turn off.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Forbidden words have a kind of power. Because we know we can’t say them, we want to.”
His lip puffed out. “But I’m using it…in a sentence, in my head.”
I had to refrain from laughing at the earnestness in his eyes, the certainty that this urge to swear in a complete sentence made it so much worse than a one-off word.
“What is the sentence?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to say. You’ll be mad at me.”
I reassured him that I would not, in fact, be mad at him. “Sometimes, if you give a word too much power it gets kind of trapped in your brain, and your brain chews it over and over. Saying it somewhere safe, like with me, might help it leave your brain.”
He sucked air into his cheeks, which blew up to trumpet-player girth. “Little F *Miss Brown,” he spit out in a rush, still unable to say the whole word, then giggled nervously. That was the name of his teacher.
I laughed. “It’s not as bad as you think, honey. Guess what, when I was younger I used to do the same thing, only I’d imagine myself doing something really, really bad, like putting a fork in someone’s knee or pushing someone off a cliff.”