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.”
His eyes widened. “Really?”
Actually, I’d thought much darker things than that, and remember the profound relief I’d felt, like the first cool break after fever, when, at the age of fourteen, I’d begun to read Carl Jung’s memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections at my therapist’s urging. In it, he recounts a tale of a thought he would come up against the edge of having over and over but then stop, horrified and ashamed, at the brink. Eventually, one day, a major turning point for him in addressing his own shame, he allowed himself to have it: A giant turd crashing through the stained-glass windows of his church.
I could feel in my son the same humiliation burnishing his edges, filling with shame for wanting to say the worst swear word he knows in conjunction with his teacher’s name, whom he loves. I knew all too well from my own experience, though, that this urge to speak the unspeakable, to tarnish what one loves, is a human urge, and that to add shame to his burden now would be to crush something precious unfolding its newborn wings.
My husband, a former English teacher, and I, a writer, have had extensive conversations with our son about the power of words. He knows the consequences of using expletives aggressively, at someone else, or in any setting other than our home. He would no sooner say any of them at school or in the vicinity of his beloved teacher than harm his beloved kitty, Elvert. So I knew what I had to do next.
“If you want to say the actual word, not just F, out loud, you can, here in the car with me.”
“But won’t you be angry?” His brown eyes frowned out at me from beneath his blond bangs.
“Absolutely not—I’m giving you permission to get it out of your head.”
“I don’t know if I want you to hear,” he said, his pale cheeks flushing pink.
By now we’d pulled into our own driveway, and I parked the car.
“I can turn on the music,” I suggested.
“Can you turn it up loud?” he asked, brows tented together like the V of a distant bird on the horizon.
“Just tap me when you’ve said it.” I extended my arm near to him.
I cranked up the radio and within a few seconds I felt his tap on the back of my hand.
“Do you feel better?” I asked.
He smiled shyly, then nodded.
Later, as we were doing our usual evening cuddle he took my face between both hands. “I liked when you let me say the bad word,” he said, then closed his eyes. “My head is empty now.”
Of course I knew it was far from empty, but I hoped that by giving him permission to say the worst thing he could think, over and over, it would, like all things forbidden, lose its power.